For kids, social media isn’t always social

Here’s a weird thing: my kids don’t use social media to be, you know, social.

The other day, I was scrolling through my own Instagram feed, while my youngest daughter was looking over my shoulder. She was asking why I follow every account I follow. I explained time and again that each account was a friend of mine – some closer than others, but, for the most part, people I’ve met at some point in life and who I wanted to keep in touch with.

(Also: Chris Hadfield. Naturally.)

My daughter, who as a young teen has newly joined Instagram herself, didn’t seem to understand. Were the feeds of these people entertaining in some way? What kind of thing did they DO – funny bits? Cooking snippets? Arts and crafts?

I had to explain that they just post pictures of their kids and their lives, and that I wanted to know about that kind of stuff. I thought that’s what everyone did on Instagram. I had to ask her what she was doing during all those Instagram screen hours, if not checking in with friends.

It turns out that for my kids – all three of them – that’s not what Instagram means to them. When they go on their accounts, they don’t spend much time on their subscribed news feed. Instead, they immediately use the “search” feature – one that will show them a wide variety of posts from many different feeds, based on things they have liked in the past. Then, they scroll and scroll and scroll, looking for anything that pops out as interesting, something to entertain them for a few seconds at a time.

I’m still processing what this difference means. While they do use Instagram to message their friends and share funny memes, they don’t seem to use it to cement or grow actual relationships with people. A lot of things I’ve read about the dangers of social media – how people craft their online life to only show the most positive things, how they worry about poses and filters for their photos, how they feel depressed when they see everyone else’s shiny, happy life – don’t seem to apply to my own kids, who are breezing right past regular feeds in favour of finding something fleeting and funny posted by a stranger.

Is this a good thing? I suppose I like that they aren’t obsessed with their own online image or the images their friends might be trying to cultivate. But it can also be a bad thing, I think. Already social media has made us more distant from real, human contact, and phones-in-faces can block the development of real friendships. So now, if my kids aren’t even bothering to make online friends – what does that mean?

For now, I’ll just keep a closer eye on their Instagram use, and possibly encourage a lot more in-person “hang-outs” for them and their friends. If they’re going to be jumping from one meme to the next, at least if a friend is in the same room, perhaps that will lead to a bonding moment or two.

Do your kids use social media for entertainment, rather than sharing? What do you think – good thing or bad?

Here are a few resources to check out: