I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media. Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how they would transform the way my kids grew up — and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up.
The pace of change is what amazes me the most. The challenges my younger daughter will be facing when she starts high school in the fall are light-years away from what my elder daughter, who’s now in college, experienced in 2010. My younger daughter’s friends live a lot of their lives through filters on Instagram and Snapchat, two apps that didn’t even exist when my elder daughter was dipping a toe in social media.
But I am optimistic about what smartphones and social media can do for people. I am thrilled to see kids learning on smartphones, doctors using apps to diagnose diseases and marginalized groups such as gay and lesbian students finding support they never had before through social networks.
Still, as a mother who wants to make sure her children are safe and happy, I worry. And I think back to how I might have done things differently. Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.
For other parents trying to decide how to do their job in a way that feels right despite the bewildering array of changes brought on by smartphones and social media, I want to share some of the resources that have helped me and my friends. Hopefully, these tips can spark conversation and help parents become resources for each other.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. It gives kids the freedom to move around in a big world, to experiment, to connect with others. As a parent, though, I know that I am responsible for making sure that my kids are ready for all that freedom — and that they know how to keep themselves safe. Here’s to staying on top of all the changes social media is bringing to our kids’ lives, so that we can continue to guide and support them in this fast-changing world.
Melinda Gates is a businesswoman and philanthropist. She is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can find her on Facebook @Melinda Gates, Twitter @melindagates and Instagram @melindafrenchgates.