If it seems like people's self-worth these days is wrapped up in their digital presence, you're not off-base. What's trending on Twitter, who has the most followers on Instagram, which celebrity's SnapChat is the coolest—winning at social media is a goal of many adults, teens, and even kids. With all this focus on being the best in the online world, parents are finding it hard to get children engaged in the real one—and make sure they're learning to be fully developed human beings who can exist confidently and successfully off-screens.
"Children today often measure their value in 'likes'," says parenting expert Laurie Wolk, author of the upcoming book Girls Just Want to Have Likes: How to Raise Confident Girls in the Face of Social Media Madness. "It's important that parents understand the digital world our kids are living in and raise them with the tools they will need to be part of our physical reality."
Tempted to just ban all social media from your home? Don't. "It's really important for kids to know how to do this," says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering kids to thrive in a world of media and technology. "It will really help them in their education and eventually their careers, so they need to know how to use these tools safely and responsibly. You need to figure out how they can integrate the Internet and social media in their lives in a positive way."
Overwhelmed by how to parent tech-savvy kids? Check out these tips from Wolk and Knorr to raise kids with IRL confidence.
1. Set a 50 percent rule for using social media in daily activities and during family time. "If you're going on a family hike, let them spend part of their time taking SnapChat and Instagram selfies, but make a point of having phones away for at least half the walk to enjoy quality family time," Wolk says. "This IRL feedback teaches that social esteem does not need to be solely based on the public reaction to social media outlets—which most of us find hard to control—or their feelings about online likeability."
2. Engage with your kids about the good and bad uses of social media. "It's important that parents recognize the value of kids' media, even social media, and not put it down," Knorr says. "It's so much our kids' world and they are really impacted by it. The way we can get our messages across and through the tug of the media is by not judging it and constantly criticizing it."
Knorr suggests finding examples of things you think are good and commenting positively on them, and, if it's something that goes against your values, don't be judgemental of it, but try to talk it through with your kids instead. For example, if your teen's friend—or a Kardashian—posts a bikini selfie on social media, ask questions about why someone would do that, why it is important for them to get those likes, and does it seem like that person has internal strength and confidence in themselves or are they looking for external validation?
"Talking about someone else is often more effective than talking to your own kid about their behavior because it gets them to think a little more critically," Knorr says. "They'll be more honest with you if they're talking about someone else."
3. Enforce guidelines for dealing with personal conflict in the real world. Because confidence comes from experiences in the real world, Wolk emphasizes that kids need to handle things in person instead of behind a screen. "When children experience conflict with a friend, parents should insist that they have difficult conversations in person," says Wolk, who founded the Sparkle Society, an organization that aims to teach young women how to put down their digital devices and develop "in real life" communication and relationship skills. "It's awkward and hard, but it will teach them to embrace and overcome their trepidation in life," she says. "Kids are losing these important communication skills and the only way to get better at them is to practice."
4. Work on their character strengths. "It's really hard for kids not to put value on the number of 'likes' something gets," Knorr says, "but we want to train our kids to feel proud for the effort they've put into some work and not be dependent on validation from others to feel good about themselves."
Making sure kids get their self esteem from internal measures and not external ones is more important today than ever, and moms and dads should praise kids for effort and for the character strengths they possess like integrity, perserverence, and honesty," Knorr says.
Media can even be a tool for highlighting character strengths you want your kids to appreciate. "What's really valuable for kids is for parents to comment positively when you see positive character strengths," Knorr adds, "like when you are watching a baseball game together and see a player show good sportsmanship, or see a TV show or movie where a kid does the right thing even though no one is watching. That's super effective."
5. Discuss IRL truths versus curated social media posts. "Children should be taught a healthy amount of skepticism, especially online," Wolk says, recommending parents teach kids early that just because someone implies something, doesn't mean it's reality. "Knowing that social media is a curated snapshot of someone else's life at a peak moment should help ease those negative feelings," she says. As Wolk often tells her own daughter: "Who really wants to wear make-up to the beach?"
Plus, examine your own Facebook feed, Wolk says: Are you showcasing your highlight reel? How about when you're in a bathing suit—do you speak to yourself kindly? Parents should model behavior they want their kids to develop. because kids "are watching far more than they're listening," Wolk says.
6. Encourage your kids to join positive online communities that aren't based on superficial validations. "Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, volunteerism, fashion, whatever your kid is into, you can absolutely find those spaces for kids online that have productive or instructive goals," Knorr says. "Maybe your kid is into coding, so they join an online group of game designers to create something in a collaborative environment with other like-minded people. That encourages a positive outlet for creativity and thinking, and you're not being judged by appearance, you're being supported by an online community that is interested in all the same stuff.
"Of course, parents should manage the risks and teach their kids safe Internet habits, but the vast majority of people online are not bad, Knorr says. "It can be so positive for kids because they are getting validation for a common interest and creating meaningful connections," she adds. "That can help develop character strengths, collaboration and communication skills, and empathy."
7. Find alternative ways to recreate those "feelings" she is after. "With social media always showcasing other people's highlight reels it's very hard for our [kids] not to want to do and experience what they see on their screens," Wolk says. "So often when we say 'we want' something, what we really 'want' is the feeling that having had that 'thing' or 'experience' sets into motion."
So next time your teen says she wants to go to The Coachella Festival in California or to Black Tap in New York City for humongous candy- and cookie-covered milkshakes, instead of saying "no" right away, ask yourself, how can I recreate those experiences for her on a more appropriate scale? "Help her identify what feeling she is after and then make it happen," Wolk says. "Attend a fun local concert and bring a bunch of her besties with you, recreate those coveted milkshakes at home—and for those times when she sees on social media that she wasn't included in a social get-together, come up with a fun gathering that she can put together not to leave anyone out but because it's just plain fun."