Today I presented some of my research on parenting, teens, and digital media to a group of undergraduate students at the University of Denver.They found the research stories very interesting and compelling — but they weren’t convinced of my analysis of how parents fit into the story, particularly as it related to one young woman we’ll call Kayla. So, I want to write here about Kayla’s story and also about the students’ interpretation of it.
At 18, Kayla was impressively obsessive about being online. When her friend, who was conducting interviews for me, asked her what it would feel like if she had to dissolve her Facebook site, this young woman said, “Honestly, it would feel very awkward. It would feel like I lost a child or something very dear to me, like a baby or something.” This really surprised her interviewer, because she knew that Kayla had had very negative experiences with friends and many others online. She’d been both a perpetrator and a victim of frequent cyberbullying.
Still, Kayla went on to say that she was on her Facebook page about four times an hour, and often eighteen hours a day. She said she checked for text messages and updates “about every three minutes.” And what she looked at when she was online was often painful for her to see: she checked her ex-boyfriend’s page to see what he was doing without her. She checked her ex-friends’ pages to see what they were saying about her. She checked to see if anyone had put her on limited profile. She even used her ex-friend’s password to log into her account to read the more personal messages her ex-friend had exchanged with others online.
When Kayla was asked about how her parents felt about her level of online activity, she seemed to have two responses: first, she said that her mom didn’t really know how much she was actually online because she wasn’t attuned to the online realm at all. She even kind of made fun of her mom, quoting her as saying,’You’re not on that space-my, are you? That book-face?’ And second, Kayla said that she wished her mom would give her more limits. As Kayla said: “they’re never put any limitations on me, so doing something like setting up rules with the computer or phone would be weird for me. But definitely I wish they had, because I’m trying to do my homework or google things online, I’ll be on Facebook too and then I’ll get distracted and be on Facebook for an hour and then I’ll be up all night doing my homework because I was on Facebook.” Why didn’t they put these limits on her? “They just don’t care as much as most parents,” Kayla explained in a statement bound to elicit a cringe from any parent who’s tried to reach a seemingly unreachable young person.
Listening to the story of Kayla and her single-parent mom and uninvolved dad, I kind of agreed with Kayla’s latter point: that perhaps her mother could have put a few more limits on her, and that might have helped Kayla to not only figure out limits for herself, but to feel loved and cared for. But the students in the class really resisted this idea. First, one student said, maybe Kayla’s story wasn’t so very different from most teens. In her experience, this student said, parents don’t know half of what’s going on online. Another agreed, joking that her own mom had referred to Facebook as “MyFace.”
Second, another student said that parents weren’t really to blame for how a kid like Kayla ended up as she did. I agree. But just because parents aren’t to blame doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t want to – or couldn’t – respond to Kayla’s situation. By writing up her story, I had been wondering what parents might learn from Kayla’s story so that they might address things differently themselves – because most parents I know would do about anything to help their daughter or son avoid or at least lessen Kayla’s self-destructive tendencies.
Interestingly, another young person also saw her own story in contrast with that of Kayla’s. “My mom’s a single mom, and she doesn’t know what’s going on either, but she still cares a lot and we talk about a lot of things,” she said. I was kind of puzzled by that response. Doesn’t that mean that she thinks Kayla’s mom might have been more effective if she had been more like her own mom: responsive rather than distant?
Maybe, but I think that overall, they were uncomfortable with the idea that we might hold the parents somewhat responsible for Kayla’s obsession. I agree with this. Parents often have things they’re dealing with that are well beyond their control – like depression, for instance. But explaining this doesn’t solve the parental dilemma: what do you do if your teen ends up there? Or, how do you take some steps to avoid aiding your teen’s slide to that sad state?
Maybe the young people in my class automatically thought of limits as bad and uncaring parenting? Or maybe they would agree with me that setting limits, the answer Kayla prescribed, wasn’t exactly right, either. After all, I think that the best thing to do is to work on the relationship itself and not let the technological differences get in the way.
I’d be interested to hear any suggestions or ideas about this. What should the stonewalled moms like Kayla’s mom do?