By Justin Ashley, author of Blaze Your Own Trail
In an era where technology and social media are the teenage norm, a fresh approach to navigating these uncharted waters is essential—one that doesn’t involve confiscating devices or banning social media: setting digital boundaries. Inspired by the rescue of Cape Hatteras, a North Carolina lighthouse, in 1999, this post explores crafting a modern beacon to guide teens and parents through the digital seas.
That North Carolina lighthouse was saved from being swallowed by the ocean waves, not because leaders waited to see what would happen but because they foresaw a light devoured by darkness and intervened before it was too late.
The Issues with Social Media
As teachers and parents, now is the time to do the same for our teens before technology and social media swallow them into the abyss. I’m not sure what generation you were raised in, but for me, technology was one small element of my childhood, and social media wasn’t even a thing, even though social definitely was.
Yes, I played Nintendo and tried to save Peach from Bowser’s castle. But I also spent a lot of time outside exploring the woods with my dog, playing sports with friends, and attending religious services with my family. There were real, authentic connections I was building. I was getting exercise, and I could find spaces and pockets of peace. There wasn’t a constant technological current trying to pull me away from the shore.
For many teens, the tides have changed. Snapchat messages and TikTok videos are a constant. The waves of gaming are beginning to flood through their phones, consoles, computers, and even virtual technology. Teens are facing erosion.
Their social, academic, physical, and emotional light is in danger, and we must help them create distance between the land and the sea by creating digital boundaries. What we once thought was a safe space for playing and connecting has become a danger zone of screen addiction, harassment, hate, violence, shaming, and bullying, so strong that it could take down the lighthouse that is your teen.
A new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General entitled Social Media and Youth Mental Health supports setting new healthy boundaries. The full document is available here, but here are a few key points that stood out to me as a parent:
- 95% of youth ages 13-17 now report using a social media platform.
- In one study, adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media faced double the risk of poor mental outcomes like depression or anxiety.
- A study of 14-year-olds suggested that greater social media use resulted in poor sleep, harassment, poor body image, and low self-esteem.
- Extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content like live self-harm videos (specifically partial asphyxiation and cutting) is easily accessible for adolescents.
- Some adults actively use social media platforms to sexually exploit children and sell fentanyl.
- The platforms have been designed to maximize user engagement (push notifications, ‘likes,’ infinite scroll, etc.) that can create changes in teens’ brain structure similar to changes seen in people with substance use or gambling addictions.
- On a typical weekday (which could be a school night), nearly 1-in-3 adolescents reported using social media until midnight or later.
After these alarming findings, a call to action follows: “At a moment when we are experiencing a youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from the risk of harm.”
3 Tips for Tackling Tech with Teens and Setting Digital Boundaries
I’m not a perfect parent, but here are three tips I’ve taken to set digital boundaries and prevent my son from losing himself to social media and technology.
1. Be a tech coach, not the tech police.
My son has a phone, and we do “tech checks” randomly every few days. He’ll hand me his phone, and we’ll look at his daily usage, what apps he’s spending time on, review his messages to and from friends, and scroll through social media. I don’t punish him for what I find, but we have an open dialogue about what he’s doing right from a parental perspective and what he needs to improve upon.
2. Spend quality time together in phone-free zones.
I don’t announce, “I’m declaring this place a phone-free zone!” but I have found some spaces we go together where we have so much fun we don’t need to use our phones. One example is the local YMCA, where we play basketball and go to the pool together. You can’t play Clash Royale while you’re dribbling a basketball, and you can’t comment on a TikTok post while swimming. And, honestly, we get into such a flow state exercising that we don’t care about the tech. It’s rendered irrelevant by the activity at hand.
3. Do a family book study about social media.
My son and I recently read a comical and informative book, Slaying Digital Dragons, by Dr. Alex Packer before setting up his social media accounts. I also made a low-stakes test for him based on the book content to take and created a social contract for him to sign. We’re both now informed on how big tech works and what we want to get out of and give to social media, and we’re clear on where we draw the line and set digital boundaries.
Technology Isn’t Going Anywhere, So Help Teens Set Digital Boundaries
Technology is neither good nor bad. The ocean is neither good nor bad. They are, in a word, powerful. But as people, specifically people who can adapt, create, and improvise, we can be the most powerful of all.
We are losing so many teens to addiction, overdoses, homicide, and suicide. No doubt, social media has played a role. I sincerely hope that the waves of technology won’t bring your teen down. I hope they’ll become a self-sufficient adult who brightens the nights. I hope you’ll be able to look at them in the same light I saw Cape Hatteras.
Justin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.
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