The real digital dilemma: Our children need us to lead

Written by Terra Mattson
Published on January 08, 2021

Client: I just reached 10,0000 followers on my instagram account! 

Me: Wait. You have 10,000 followers? You are only 14 years old. Who is following you?

Client: I don’t know. People. They just like my photos.

Me: Can I see your photos? 

Client: Sure. They are mostly pictures of me posing. Nothing special. 

Me: Well, you are quite beautiful. Some of the photos seem more seductive than others. What message are you trying to put out to the world on your account? 

Client: Message? I don’t know. It’s just fun to see what people like about me. I feel more confident.

Me: Do your mom and dad know?

Client: Yes. They are fine with it. They really don’t pay much attention. 

Instagram entered the world in 2010. Just two years later, in 2012, the underbelly of the Instagram beast regularly showed up in my office in the form of disconnected, self-doubting, anxious users.

I knew very early on that the long-term effects of this “new addiction” would drastically impact developing identities of its users. It took years to have documented evidence showing just how bad it really was; the addiction had rooted itself in the lives of millions, and its poison flowed quickly through its victims.

Sadly, the conversation above is just one of many I have had with teens and young adults over the twenty years I have spent as a professional in the field of marriage, family, and mental health. For the past fifteen years, I have observed changes and trends from within my private practice. In my book Courageous (2020), I unpack memories of sitting with young teens, listening to them recount how worthless and ashamed they felt, in large part due to social media. Many never realized they would end up feeling this terrible from something that seemed so harmless. They were blind-sided, and so were their parents.

Clients struggled with eating disorders and sex addictions.

Some, quite young, agreed to “hook-ups” with random guys that gave them attention online.

Other clients watched Facebook affairs end their marriages.

Young girls sat across from me, confused, lured by predators, unsure of how to disentangle themselves.

Boys learned hard lessons after blasting nude pictures across public platforms that ruined lives. Pornography addiction skyrocketed, among men and women alike, while depression and anxiety spun out of control.

My office was a hot-bed for the trauma brought about by this new addiction.

If you have recently viewed the Netflix special called The Social Dilemma, then you know I am not alone in recognizing the need for reform.

Without shaming parents, who are learning in real time how to manage the overwhelming rise of technology in the home, I do want to help you wise up to the reality of where we really are as a culture. We cannot make any changes without an honest awareness of our current reality. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” referring to the truth of the gospel. This also refers to acknowledging the truth of where you are at with this very real “dilemma,” and how it is impacting your life.

Social media exacerbates vulnerabilities and preys on individual weaknesses, but it doesn’t necessarily create the brokenness. Brokenness happens when a core need is not met.

For many young social media users, that need is legitimate relationship. Unfortunately, young teens and pre-teens don’t easily know how to get that need met in a healthy manner and are often slow to ask for help.

As a therapist, I can say with total confidence that many adults struggle with this very same issue. This internal desire for deep relationship is actually God-given. He designed us for community and needing others is a big part of how that evolves. Our culture (and social media outlets) has done a brilliant job coming up with a “quick” fix to this wide-spread emptiness, but it doesn’t actually meet the human need for connection.

While our kids have constant access to countless, conflicting voices, they really need to be hearing a consistent refrain of love and acceptance from one or two caring adults on a regular basis.

Thanks to technology, we now enjoy a wide-spread lack of emotional regulation across society. No need to look any further than a public parking lot to see evidence of that!

We have also lost the ability to make eye contact and to maintain conversation. This is true for many young people, but it’s also true for adults and parents who model these behaviors to their own kids.

In 2010, little was known about the long-term consequences that would affect both children and families, Parents did not have many tools to intervene in growing addictions. Many parents and adults assumed kids were “safe” because everyone else used it, too.

The impact of the digital age has changed our neurobiology as well as our expectations of life. We have different ways of relating to one another, and to the world around us, but the truth is that we were never designed to find our meaning or purpose beyond real life, one-to-one relationship. In fact, research shows that the average person can only handle 60 relationships at any one time (give or take a few). Trying to manage the opinions and needs of thousands, sometimes 24-hours a day, is beyond anyone’s ability, let alone a twelve year old child.

Courageous Girls launched in 2012 out of a response to what I saw daily in my office.

The impact of the digital age on moms, daughters, sisters, wives, (as well as husbands and sons) was too much to bear. I hoped Courageous Girls would be a force moving people in a new direction—one that encouraged healthy and whole relationships; where moms and daughters could come together to exercise their muscles in trust, grace, and face-to-face, authentic relationship. Courageous Girls was founded on the desire to help girls (and moms) discern God’s voice, and to be grounded in the self-actualization that happens when we truly understand that we are loved, just as we are.

After years of avoiding social media myself, I joined Instagram in August, 2019.

Despite the mountain of evidence against such apps, I felt like Instagram could still use a few more hope-filled voices, and I set out to share the message of Courageous Girls and Living Wholehearted.

Before officially signing on, I set up boundaries for myself and for my family. So far, I’m still on. However, I constantly hold this part of my job loosely; if at any time I feel my addictive nature is triggered, or that the platforms are breaking down my family unit, I will jump off.

My daughters cannot hold that same tension on their own. Their reasons for engaging are more fragile and they are more easily influenced. As an adult, my discernment muscles are far more seasoned than theirs, and this is precisely why we, as parents, must engage our kids to help them build similar muscles. We must raise them to resist the pressures of the “social media world” in order to keep them from becoming another commodity for the system at large.

The voices from our screens tell us we need to do more, be more, and have more; they heighten our sense of urgency. It’s not by chance that now, in 2020, the inventors of many of our most addictive platforms confess they never imagined the damage their creativity would cause.

The Social Dilemma, a recent Netflix feature, introduced us to Justin Rosenstein, an innovator who curated the “like” button. He shared that the goal of the original design was to help spread love. No one ever imagined it to be a key factor in teen loneliness, depression, or suicide. Young minds naturally struggle to distinguish the feedback from their own parents and peers, let alone the opinions and comments of strangers across the world.

So what do we do? How can we begin to scale our kids back to solid ground?

Click here to download 8 Social Media Tips for Families for advice on how to move forward in this social media saturated world.

In this together,

Terra

Terra A. Mattson, M.A. LMFT, LPC is the co-founder of Courageous Girls and Living Wholehearted, Author, Podcaster, Counselor and Executive Coach.

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Terra Mattson

Terra Mattson (MA LPC, LMFT), a Christian Parenting spokesperson, is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor. Alongside her husband Jeff, Terra co-hosts the Living Wholehearted Podcast and are the co-founders of Living Wholehearted, a professional counseling and organizational development firm. Terra is the author of Courageous: Being Daughters Rooted in Grace. Terra is a mom to two girls, a novice gardener, loves to paint and bake, and craves reading a good book by a pool on a hot day.

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