The last six months or so, I have done dozens of interviews on podcasts and radio shows about social media because of my book Terms of Service. As I am talking about social media with a podcast or radio host, the host will often ask a question to this effect, “Your book largely deals with the negatives of social media. Are you completely negative about social media, or do you think there is some hope in it someplace. Are there any positives?”
I love when hosts have asked this question because I think it’s important to acknowledge that thinking social media is generally bad and a net negative on society (like I do) does not mean I think social media is totally, 100% awful and completely impossible to be redeemed or used for any good whatsoever. Because some think this—some hosts (and even some friends) think because I wrote a book about the ills of social media and how it negatively shapes us that I am “anti social media.”
This is not the case.
I use social media and enjoy using social media! I just think that too many of us use social media in such a reckless, unintentional way that we are ignorant of how it’s shaping our hearts and minds. And I think this merits our attention, which is why I wrote a book about it.
So when hosts have asked, “What are you optimistic about when it comes to social media?” I am so glad to discuss my optimism. Because I am, against all odds, optimistic about at least one thing when it comes to social media. What is it?
But first, we have to talk about the parents.
The Parent Problem
I don’t mean to say parents are a problem. What I mean to say is that since the dawn of the social internet, parents have lacked adequate tools to parent teenagers (and children in general) in an online world.
I feel bad for parents around my parents’ age, or even parents whose children were teens when Instagram first came onto the scene around 2010. Why? Because my parents and the parents of older Gen Z’ers whose gateway drugs were Instagram and Snapchat in the early 2010s did not grow up with social media, but they had to help their kids learn how to navigate the most hormonally tumultuous years of their young lives as they carried stages around in their pockets.
Parents whose kids were teenagers from about the year 2004-2011 simply had no concept for how social media would negatively impact the lives of their children. Of course typical foundational elements of parenting, like instilling discipline in children, teaching children about making wise decisions, and other such parenting essentials are all important elements of parenting in a social media world. But parents of children who were teenagers in the 2000s and early 2010s ought to be given a special measure of grace for having to learn about social media themselves while also learning how it impacts their kids.
Parents of teenagers today were likely some of the earliest users of Myspace and Facebook in the early 2000s and have had plenty of time to learn about social media since then and before they had teenagers begging to have accounts of their own. Parents today really have no excuse to not be schooled on the effects of social media, whether through personal experience or research. But parents of teenagers back in the 2000s and early 2010s had it rougher than anyone, and that paved the way for a lot of dysfunction and pain in the early life of social media and the young lives of its earliest users.
This is why I am the element about which I am most optimistic when it comes to the future of social media is our children, everyone from teenagers to toddlers. Or as Schmidt would say:
The Children Are the Future
Our children are what make me optimistic about the future of social media. Why? Because I think today’s teenagers get it better than just about anyone, and today’s toddlers will probably understand it even better one day.
I’m not joking when I say this: I think a lot of teenagers have a healthier relationship with social media than their parents and grandparents do. This is not to say teenagers use social media wisely—they often do not. But I think many teenagers today have simply seen the havoc social media can wreak in their lives and the lives of their peers so much that they have a more sobering, realistic understanding of social media’s ills than even their parents and teachers do.
My hope, my optimism, for the future of social media is that today’s teenagers and toddlers will eventually be in positions of power and influence in their homes and our world such that they can curb the destructive effects of social media more than their parents or grandparents have.
Like I said before, my parents did a great job of parenting me as social media emerged in my adolescent years, but I expect they would have done better had it not been totally new to them. I hope to parent my two-year-old daughter well when it comes to social media; I am unsure if I will, but I hope I can.
Outside of the home, I am clearly trying to do what I can to help people recognize the ills of social media through this newsletter and my books. Even still, I think my daughter could likely have an even better perspective on social media than I have when she gets older because of when she was born and the exposure she will have to it at an even younger age than I had.
It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better
I think the social media scene will get more dire and gross before it gets better, but I do think it will get better. And I think the teens and toddlers we are shaping today will play integral roles in helping us all collectively have a more healthy relationship with social media.
I just think we need to hit a sort of “rock bottom” before that happens, and, believe it or not, I don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom regarding our relationship with social media quite yet. Once we do, whatever that looks like, I think the generation(s) of people who will need to pull us out will be maybe a bit better equipped to do so than those of us currently in positions of power and influence.
And I want to write here for as long as I can to help us all work our way to and through rock bottom together.
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"since the dawn of the social internet, parents have lacked adequate tools to parent teenagers (and children in general) in an online world" Yes, 100%!! From what I've seen, parents generally seem to be getting their sea legs with this tech. But there has definitely been a lot of wreckage along the way. Great article -- You have put into words a lot of my own musings on parenting in the tech age. I "hit bottom" with social media in 2020. Quitting Twitter started me on the road back to sanity. Never again!