We have all been the victim (or the perpetrator) of over-sharing online. We all know someone who has posted on Facebook or Twitter about their nasty divorce, their bathroom habits (I really don’t need to know how long it took or the size of the log), their child’s most embarrassing moment, photos of drunk high school friends barely inside their bikinis
What can I do to prepare my kids for the onslaught of social media and the pressure to be ‘cool,’ to over-share their own lives?
This week, just days after being rescued from being held hostage by James Dimaggio, who allegedly killed her mother and brother, Hannah Anderson went online to answer questions about her ordeal. Questions ranged from specific details like how she was separated from her mother and brother, to the intensely personal, like whether or not she was raped. They also delved into her emotional response to the trauma, whether or not she was happy Dimaggio was dead.
This CNN opinion piece asks why people like Hannah are sharing such deeply personal and traumatic things in broad public spaces online and whether or not this is a good thing. The author’s conclusion is that it probably isn’t that bad. But I’m left with my own questions: what can I learn from this? What do I need to tell my kids about over-sharing online?
This topic comes at a pertinent time, my twins just became teenagers and opened their first Facebook accounts. I am raising my children in Djibouti, land of no Wi-Fi. Land of conversations on the telephone, or even (gasp) face-to-face. This removes a sense of urgency but it also demonstrates just one more area of life in which my children will be different from their American peers. Sometimes this gap can lead to a Third Culture Kid hustling to make up for lost time when they return to their host country. I need to prepare my kids.
How? And for what?
Teens (and adults) turn to the internet for support, as a sort of diary, therapy, and according to a study done by Professor Russell W. Belk, to construct an identity.
“The resulting disinhibition leads many to conclude that they are able to express their “true self” better online than they ever could in face-to-face contexts. This does not mean that there is a fixed “true self” or that the self is anything other than a work in progress, but apparently self-revelation can be therapeutic, at least with the aid of self-reflexive applications.” (from How the Internet Makes Us Overshare)
This online identity is often built around a desire to be popular, to build a kind of celebrity status, rather than a desire to be respected. The Time article Sex, Alcohol, and Oversharing explains that one of the reasons for over-sharing is anxiety and the need to control that anxiety.
“When we talk to people, we spend a lot of mental energy worrying about how we come off to them. We want them to think we’re funny, smart and interesting, but that often means we don’t pay attention to what we’re actually saying.”
This leads me to the conclusion that as a parent, I need to address four issues (among others) with my kids as they begin to explore and experiment online.
Kids need support, teens especially, as they go through the tumultuous years of puberty and change and new relational complexities. Yes, online communities can be incredibly supportive. When a friend battled breast cancer and posted online (something which was only shared with close family and friends a generation ago), she was swamped with well-wishers, prayers, meal plan sign-ups, offers to help with her children.
But kids also need the support of presence, of physical touch, of facial expressions and conversation. I need to be available and sensitive to these needs and I need to create opportunities for them to experience safe community with peers and other adults.
I kept a diary as a teen and if I could find it again, I would burn it (after rereading it and laughing hysterically at myself). I would never let anyone else read it, no strangers and certainly no friends or family. But now the kinds of things I wrote for my eyes only, to hold as a memory, and to help me process, are being shared in the public sphere.
I understand that this is the reality now but I want to encourage my children to put up safe boundaries and to understand what is appropriate for online and what is appropriate for in person. And a major aspect of this is listening.
I need to listen to my kids as they process and I need to teach them to listen. One of the great weaknesses of sharing online is that there is no need to actually listen to others, to their brokenness and pain and to their joys and successes. Online interaction often lacks mutuality.
Okay, I’m not going to be a therapist for my kids, at least not professionally. But we can talk about issues of confidence, of anxiety. The less people engage in human interaction, the more anxious they will be when forced to – in job interviews, when meeting a girlfriend’s family, meeting a new teacher. I can help my kids build confidence by equipping them with life skills and by reminding them of their strengths, helping them see their unique talents. I don’t mean to suggest this is the equivalent of therapy, but it can be part of a healing process when a child is hurt and it can prevent the hurt that arises from the consequences of inappropriate behavior.
And, if there is a more serious issue that should be addressed by therapy, I need to ensure my kids have access to a professional, not only to the words of peers or strangers online.
This is perhaps the most significant, and affects all the others. Online identities are, of necessity, separate from real identities. This can create a feeling of living two lives and allows the potential for secrecy, for deception, for confusion. Am I the person I create with cool photos and pithy phrases or am I the three-dimensional living, breathing person with complexities and passions and struggles and joys?
Who am I? This is a question asked by teens in particular in that living, breathing life, and more and more it is the question asked online when we create profiles and post videos. Online, it can turn into: who do I want to be?
So how do I help my kids discover their identity? I can share our family history, our stories of where we came from. I can encourage them to find things they love doing. I can expose them to and teach them my spiritual, faith, and religious convictions. I can delight in them and love being with them, affirm the fact that they are enough, just they way they are. They don’t need to impress me or present a false self to me. They are loved and accepted without conditions.
I’m glad my kids can engage online, this connects them to people they love all over the world. I’m also glad they aren’t inundated with American media and social media pressures (yet). We have a few years to work on these things, and to be perfectly honest, as a social media user myself, as a blogger and a writer, I am teaching these things to myself right along with my kids.
I’m happy for Hannah that she is safe now and hope she will find the healing and support she needs, whether online or through in person contact. I think, in the reality of our world today, she will find both. And I’m happy for that, too.