Middle school and Silicon Valley have one big thing in common: both contend with the daily ups and downs of fleeting popularity and capricious friends or followers. Like your tween or teen, technology itself is in a constant race to be seen as more relevant, more connected, and more popular day after day. There are lots of fickle mistresses, from fame to fashion to fortune, but middle schoolers and tech developers know fickle better than anyone.
Adults bristle at the idea of middle schoolers and technology co-mingling. We tend to be a bit fickle ourselves, recasting technology as a villain at the start of our kids’ adolescence, despite having developed positive, long-term relationships with technology in the home. Consider the pacifying iPad, the educational websites, the wisdom of Siri (bless her for never tiring of the relentless questions), or countless other conveniences that made life with kids a tiny bit easier. I suppose, all that early tech felt like it was within our control, or at least, a reflection of our choices. Ultimately, it’s not social media or texting or smartphones that freak parents out, but the intersection of those things with tweenaged free will and, more pointedly, the loss of control that comes with the territory.
Tweens are drawn to technology like moths to a flame—a backlit, blue light, glowing, and rechargeable flame. There are lots of reasons for this, but here are the three I believe most relevant to this particular stage of adolescent development: For one, it’s a socially acceptable way to play. Plastic dolls and action figures may be tossed to the back of the closet, but older kids are still drawn to make-believe, and technology enables make-believe in ways that still feel magical and limitless. For another, technology is a reliable way to connect with friends, and without a doubt forging friendships is a top priority for the vast majority of kids this age. And finally, technology gives kids a place to guard their privacy where adults can’t easily intrude.
Technology Moves Quickly but You Don’t Have To
The fast pace of technology paired with the unpredictable, shifting loyalty of tween consumers is exactly why you should spend zero time freaking out about which apps are on the latest alarming listicle in your Facebook feed. Most Dangerous Social Media Sites Your Kids Love! Or How Your Kid Can Outsmart You with These Tricks Online! Or If Your Kid Has These Apps, You’re Basically a Very Bad Parent! Lists keep coming out because apps keep being developed or rebranded. Don’t let this overwhelm you. More important than staying on top of which apps people are freaking out about today is understanding trends in functionality and deciding what’s off-limits. For example, you may choose not to allow any apps that share your child’s location with other users, ask users to anonymously rate or give feedback on other users, don’t have a reliable reporting feature to block people who misuse the app, or connect everyone on the platform instead of allowing users to curate their own list of who to follow. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of how to train your brain toward the kinds of themes to which you should pay attention.
If you feel like you’re in the dark, always behind, struggling to keep up with the latest online threats to your family, you’re focusing way too much on defense, and not enough on building a strong offense. You can’t stay on top of everything that happens online and that’s okay. I fear, when it comes to talking about technology use and tweens, we lose sight of the forest for the trees. If you can zoom out, away from the fine details of apps, and instead encourage a more broad and analytical discussion around how we can and should interact with technology, your kid will be better able to manage their online life through all the shifts and changes every new update brings.
Excerpted from FOURTEEN TALKS BY AGE FOURTEEN copyright © 2021 by Michelle Icard. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.