Often parents feel like kids are tethered to their phones, constantly glancing or full-on staring into a screen. It’s unnerving.
But before we judge kids or insist they “put that thing down,” we need to understand what motivates them to check social media so frequently. At the Fuller Youth Institute, we’re fans of the adage, “There’s a belief behind every behavior.” By identifying our kids’ motivations, we can empathize before we seek solutions. Without this empathy, our conversations about boundaries, rules, and good decisions get lost in translation.
Teenagers often seem hypersocial to adults because they are in a stage of life when they begin to form their own identities. The question “Who am I?” plays like background music on a continuous loop throughout adolescence. Teenagers largely work on the answer to this question through relationships. And with lots of experimentation.
So why do teenagers constantly check social media? Why do they care so much about the likes, shares, and posts from their friends? We’ve found it helpful to think about social media as today’s version of the school lunchroom.
School cafeterias have always been a kind of petri dish within which young people experiment—a social laboratory. To parents and educators, the noon break is about eating lunch. But for teens, it can be the defining moment of the entire day. Every lunch is a kid’s opportunity to try out an identity, observe, tweak the formula a bit, and get ready to test out a new version of themselves tomorrow.
Parents often underappreciate how a quick scroll through social media can be a lot like scanning the lunchroom. Young people have very sophisticated ways of conveying social cues with digital media that we may struggle to see. Many of these cues are non-verbal, the equivalent of a thousand words in one image. That’s why phenomena like emoji and photo sharing catch on like wildfire (and keep evolving). It’s also why monitoring all the likes, shares, votes, and views is so important for our kids. And the irony of the lunchroom analogy is that often today’s teenagers are also using social media in their actual lunchrooms, navigating all these layers at once.
It turns out teenagers’ drive to connect today is the motivated by the same social drive that helped us to form our identities decades ago, with new technologies layered in. And just like you used to talk to your friends on a home phone—probably one attached to a wall, maybe with a long curly cord—the basic need to connect remains.
In other words, our kids are a lot like us after all. The more we understand that reality, the more we can help our kids discover their identity through relationships—whether or not those bonds are forged digitally. They’re just navigating the journey in the only world they’ve ever known, and it’s a digitally connected one.
This article was adapted with permission from Kara Powell, Art Bamford, and Brad M. Griffin, Right Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World.