Thoughts on “Being 13”


“Most adolescents with access to smart phones are living their social lives online as much as they do face-to-face. Adults worry that teens are hooked on social media, but most have no idea what teens are actually doing online.”
-Marion K. Underwood & Robert W. Faris, Being 13: Perils of Lurking on Social Media

I finally took the time this morning to watch the CNN documentary #BEING13: Inside the Secret Lives of Teens, which looks at the “hidden digital world of adolescents.” Given my job as a summer camp director, my passion for better understanding youth development, my on-going concern with the negative impact of our ever-growing screen usage, and the fact that my youngest child is currently 13, watching this 2015 documentary has been on my “to do” list for some time. I also know what held me back from watching it for so long. Just from watching the trailer and quick outtakes, I knew the video would not have an uplifting, positive message.

If you have 43 minutes and an interest in what’s going on with kids and social media, I recommend watching Being 13. Even though the social media landscape has already changed since it was filmed, the documentary takes a hard look at the overarching reasons why our kids spend SO MUCH TIME online.

The researchers behind the documentary, Marion Underwood and Robert Faris, tracked and analyzed over 150,000 posts and tweets from 8th graders and found these kids view social media as a “popularity barometer”: “Popular, attractive, high-status youth seem to excel in the art of social media, and they use it adeptly to create their identities, build their brands, and expand their numbers of friends and followers. These teens post beautiful pictures and witty comments that immediately result in positive reinforcement from the peer group in the form of likes, comments, retweets and favorites.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the popularity spectrum (where many kids are), the researchers describe “vulnerable youth who suffer from social comparison, from feeling sad about the fact that they have fewer social opportunities or friends than others, and from feeling that others have better or happier lives.”

They shared the story of Madison Holleran, a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, who “took her own life after telling friends how sad and overwhelmed she felt when she saw others’ gleaming Instagram pictures of all of the fun they were having at college.”

Here are a few thoughts I had while watching Being 13:

#1 I am thankful not to have a preteen or young teenage daughter right now.

It was frightening to watch the documentary and listen to the girls talk about the work they put into taking “perfect” selfies and about how often they checked their feeds for “likes” and to see what social events they might be missing. My oldest daughters, now 23 and 21, missed much of the current teenage social media craze. By the time Instagram became popular (2012), they were, thankfully, already past the angst-filled early teen years.

My youngest daughter, who is now 18, was on the cusp of the craze and was a sophomore in high school when she started using Instagram. Currently among her age group, who were older when the social media craze really hit hard, posting sultry photos of themselves partially clothed garners hundreds of likes, which is why they persist. More likes, of course, translate to greater popularity, so for the average 13-year-old girl trying to establish her brand, the stakes are extremely high. “One bad selfie,” say Underwood and Faris, “can ruin everything,” according to the kids in their study.

My 18-year-old told me that girls “have to be mature to be on social media and know that they rock and people are psycho.” Ugh – how many 13-year-olds know that they “rock” and have the confidence to blow off mean comments and the subtly mean omissions that are even more prevalent? Did you know that a way to really hurt a 13-year-old’s feelings is to not tag them in a group photo? According to Being 13, the social aggression our kids face is almost always undetectable to adult eyes.

#2 Social media is not all bad.

While the documentary did share a lot about the “dark” side of what kids are doing online, they also shared that many of the comments and posts were positive and encouraging. In addition to the social aggression and “combat” our kids face online, they also experience friends standing up for them and defending them. Kids also use social media to affirm, support, and lift each other up. A few years ago, I wrote about using social media for good, and I still believe there are ways we all, including our teenagers, can use social media well.

#3 I understand better why 13-year-olds love summer camp so much.

“What all youth lose when they spend hours lurking online is time to think, daydream, problem solve, read, converse with others, do homework, enjoy the beauty of nature, or engage in physical activity.”

I was reminded, once again, about how awesome camp is for kids this age. One of my camp’s core values is “Unplugging and Connecting Face to Face,” and our campers and staff embrace the opportunity to leave their screens behind. Before leaving for camp, many campers post on social media about going offline. They often include the camp mailing address, encouraging friends to send them “snail mail” while they’re logged off for a few weeks. Many campers have mentioned to me over the years about what a relief this is. Why, then, do they resume the madness as soon as they’re home?

According to Underwood and Faris, kids this age are not addicted to their phones per-se, but instead they are addicted to the “peer connection, affirmation, and reinforcement” they often feel they can only get on social media. They crave the “image of themselves as reflected in the eyes of their peers.” While kids are at camp, surrounded by peers who connect with and affirm them face-to-face, and help them see a positive image of themselves, they don’t feel the need to find that affirmation online.

I no longer have to wonder why, at my own summer camp, the very first age group to fill each summer are the groups including kids in their middle school years – kids ages 12-14. Those kids, the very same ones who are supposedly “addicted” to their phones, love their time at camp more than kids at any other age, probably because they receive the all-important connection and reinforcement they crave so deeply.

#4 The social media landscape changes so quickly that it’s impossible for parents to keep up.

Even though this documentary came out in 2015, the social media they focused on and discussed is already somewhat outdated. While Instagram and Twitter were what most of these kids were using then, texting, Instagram private messaging, and SnapChat may now be king. And I’m sure there is currently something else on the rise that I’ve never heard of.

One of two pieces of advice offered at the end of the documentary was, “Sign up for all the services kids are using. Follow and be friends with your kids.”

This advice, I believe, is impossible. Given that so many of our kids have “FINSTAS” (fake Instagram accounts that are actually more “real” than the one parents follow), any kid with access to a smart phone, tablet, or computer will be using some form of communication that parents will not see or have access to. I understand this. When I was a teenager, I did not want my parents to see every note I passed to friends in class or letter I wrote or received. Kids today still want their “own life,” separate from their parents. Unfortunately, the stakes are higher when we’re talking about potentially life-altering, public posts.

With much of their communication being done via SnapChat now, parents really don’t have a chance to keep up. I think following everything our kids do, especially the kids who are posting, messaging, and commenting excessively, is impossible.

So, unless we either move somewhere with no cell phone or internet service or remove all devices from our children, I am certain that kids are communicating and posting things online that parents do not know about.

Although this first piece of advice did not seem realistic to me, the second rang true.

#5 Our relationship with our kids is the best antidote for this social media craziness.

According to the researchers, just keeping a good relationship with our kids and talking with them about their online lives will reap dividends. By staying connected on the topic of social media, we can “help them navigate the digital streets.”

Another idea: rather than making putting down their phones always a negative or punitive thing, we can encourage fun activities together that don’t include phones. I know that while I’ve experienced some push-back for our screen rules, our unplugged family times have been some of our happiest moments.

As I watched the documentary and heard about the worry and anxiety social media is causing for kids, I was reminded that the current group of preteens/teens are the first generation to truly grow up on social media. And we need to help guide them through this.


Watch Being Thirteen: Inside the Secret World of Teens:

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