Helping Kids Curb the Craving for Online Approval

“Whaaaaaat?! No way! How did that happen?” My 12 year-old screeched from the couch, sat straight up, and locked shocked eyes on her phone. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked readying myself for some degree of bad news that was sure would follow.

Was it a terrible accident? A fall out with a friend? A bad grade from a teacher?

“This is crazy! How did I lose three Instagram followers in the last three hours?” she replied with acute disbelief.

My heart sank. Did my child really just say that?

Not only do I have to parent her through junior high drama, peer pressure, and her impending first heart break, now I have to help her navigate through friend and follower count fluctuations too?

Yes parent. That’s exactly what you need to do.

That’s the reality of parents in the 21st century land of social networks where “likes” and “follows” equal acceptance and “blocks,” low “likes,” and not getting “tagged” equates to straight up rejection.

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This digital caste system flies in the face of our most savvy parenting techniques and maneuvers we so carefully designed to build up our kids’ self esteem and affirm their unique purpose and place in this world. Still, it is what it is.

Parenting today sure isn’t for the faint of heart—nor is it for the under informed. So exactly how do we help our kids through online social circles with their self-worth in tact?

Don’t criticize their need for approval. Your child’s attachment to this new digital vernacular may not make sense to you but it doesn’t have to. What your child feels is very valid and very real. Listen with empathy and be sure to acknowledge and accept her feelings. A “like” to kids today is like getting a mini applause for what they think and who they are. An “unfollow” is a form of rejection in their world.

Reaffirm them. Reassure your child in her opinions and talents and be generous (and genuine) with your praise.

Correct inaccurate beliefs. While you shouldn’t criticize your child’s reaction to criticism or attachment to the opinions of others, you can and should correct false thinking. For instance, you can clarify that “unfollows” are usually not personal—that people unfollow for a number of reasons and those actions don’t reflect you personally. If your child doesn’t get a million likes on their new profile picture and says, “I knew I should have never posted that ugly photo,” you can correct that comment immediately with the truth. If she voices doubt of her choice in jeans or her new haircut because it failed to garner the anticipated digital applause, be sure to speak to that misconception promptly. False perceptions can take root and become reality to kids so it’s important for parents to listen and respond with accurate statements. Basically parent: It’s your job to do do digital damage control—daily.

Give them eye contact. Give your child individual, daily, focused attention. One of the most powerful ways to convey unconditional love and acceptance is by giving a child your one-on-one, eye-locked, focused attention. Feeling secure and loved helps kids find their feet and stand their ground in a variety of circumstances.

Encourage hobbies. Help your child develop hobbies and interests (offline) that affirm her skills and highlight her individual perspectives and talents.

Balance online time. Monitor and help your child balance her online time as much as possible. Remember: She may walk around with her face in her phone, but you are still the boss—and likely the one paying the cell phone bill. You can and should set time limits on tech use.

Encourage critical thinking. Ask your child questions that encourage critical thinking outside of the online “group” mentality. For example: “I saw you ‘like’ Sally’s post. Would you post the same thing she posted? Why? How do you feel about that?” or “I like the comment you made on Sally’s post. That took a lot of courage. What prompted you to say that?”

Model laughter. Laugh with your kids and encourage them to laugh at themselves. This will help them cultivate a sense of humor. A healthy sense of humor will allow them to roll with the punches online, dodge daily drama, and forgo the need to be defined by follower counts and “likes.”

Teach positive self-talk. There’s a lot of wisdom to some of our childhood clichés such as “. . . words can never hurt me.” Teach your child how to develop power lines to help them keep their perspective online. Use some Taylor Swift self talk to help them recover from online digs such as “People throw rocks at things that shine.”

Go dark one day a week. Let your child pick the day but establish 24-hour period of no technology for your family. Offline time will temper the constant “urge” to check “likes” and follower numbers (as well as tighten the family bond).

Build a sense of belonging.  Every human being, a child especially, desires to feel accepted and a part of something bigger; a secure community. Take the time to help your child understand and take pride in her family, faith traditions, sports teams, ancestry, and community. Set aside intentional time to help her build a comforting sense of identity that will help her keep online approval and “likes” in their proper perspective.

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