My son, now halfway through his eighth-grade year, does not appear to have the slightest whiff of a care about social media, and until about two weeks ago I did not realize the severity of this problem.
Newly 14, my son is attached to his phone on a seemingly molecular level, but he has no Facebook account, no Twitter, no Snapchat, no social media presence to speak of (at least outside the world of Minecraft, where, I am told, he exists as a shipbuilding contractor of some repute). He does have an Instagram account, but that’s because we made him get one last summer, as part of a slick plan to force him to keep in touch during an overseas exchange program. For two weeks he obliged us with photos of castles and classmates and cheese, but since his return he’s posted approximately one picture, which was not of any of those things.
To be fair, he’s a very young 14-year-old. He hasn’t yet been fully bowled over by adolescence, and he would much rather participate in neighborhood Nerf wars or lunch-table video-game battles than interact online. He’s shy, but not so shy that he avoids karaoke (which I would have feigned a stroke to avoid at his age), outgoing but not so much that he craves visibility. He babysits his brother, finishes most of his schoolwork, practices karate, goes to birthday parties, brushes twice a day, doesn’t look directly at eclipses, hangs with his goofy little tribe. From what I consider to be a reasonable (though certainly not entirely lit) vantage point, most components appear to be in place, and it’s possible that the gross, sticky tentacles of social media simply haven’t attached to him yet.
For my wife and me, that’s fine, bordering on glorious; if we had to rank all the things we’re excited to deal with from a male teenager, The Hideous Labyrinthine Terror of Formative Years with Social Media is near dead last, right under Researching Tuition and Explaining Who Stormy Daniels Is. Yet when I mention this mysterious void to people, his seeming disinterest, I get a sort of head-cocked curiosity and a response on the order of, “Is that okay? Does that affect his social life?” And I never have a good answer for this except, um, I think it helps him have one? I’m an expert on neither social media nor the social interactions of the modern American teen, but I do know this: I do not consider this a problem. And that feeling is very, very difficult to maintain, as people keep indicating, hinting or loudly proclaiming that it’s clearly a large and serious problem.
Now, this isn’t to say that we’re better for any of this, or to curse parents whose kids maintain a handful of handles; if social media works for you and your family, fantastic. A friend recently relayed to me a story about his daughter’s Snapchat streaks, a means by which you mathematically rank your friendship on the basis of app-use frequency; he did so not in any grandiose way but in one that suggested that it was simply part of her life. I laughed that my son’s primary concern that afternoon was showing off the unnecessarily large Nerf-dart crossbow he’d recently obtained. “You’re lucky,” he said, and I agreed, nodding but left with a vague, dull feeling of missing something necessary.
We have no rules about social media accounts because we haven’t needed them. Instagram piques my son’s attention, but sporadically enough that, when I check his phone, I find the app has been pinging him with worried-sounding pleas for attention: “Hey, 12 people have posted lately! You should check out these Stories! Where are you? Is everything okay?” A machine, begging for his time, for his eyes on its ads. He regards Facebook and Twitter as curious little wastes of time, which is, to be fair, probably how we once considered them. Snapchat just elicits the kind of eye roll he usually reserves for me. (It is, yes, theoretically possible that he has secret accounts to which we’re not privy, but I doubt it, as my man is a very bad liar, as evidenced by the Great Missing Science Project Fiasco of 2017, which, it turns out, he just never turned in.)
This isn’t going anywhere near a resolution, so apologies for the clickbait nature of the subject. But on the other hand, that plays into it too, doesn’t it? We’re conditioned for things: that all 14-year-olds are grafted to Snapchat, that all articles about those who aren’t will end in some manic payoff, that social media, an unformed universe that’s questionable at best and hazardous at worst, is something teens require — all these little crystals forming in this first-ever decade of American life with electronic best friends.
Much has been written about how the current generation of kids is the first to deal with growing up in this Matrix, with its attendant self-esteem bursts of likes and streaks and metrics for quantitative approval. But it’s also the first generation of parents surfing through its wake, the first to witness the live effects of cyberbullying, the first to vicariously live through those virtual endorphin shots, the first to see from the outside what social media does to the inside. We are party to it and charged to guide it, but basically powerless to do much but observe. As hard as it is for kids to navigate this shapeless, unformed maze, we as parents have to do it too, both on our own accounts and then, more strongly, more tacitly, more powerfully, alongside the loves of our lives.
And that is beyond daunting.