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Middle School tech weapons

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Screentime Consultant: Social Media as Middle School Weapon

Note: This story is true and contains strong language (obscured by Seattle’s Child editors). Names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent. 


After spotting Sylvie and her friend in our front yard, three older girls strode towards them confidently. They approached Sylvie and asked, “Do you know Laura*?”

“Yeah…what’s it to you?” Sylvie’s friend Willa asked, a touch of hostility in her voice.

One of the older girls said, “Laura is super lame. You should ditch her as a friend.”

“F&%# off,” Willa said.

“Please leave us alone,” Sylvie requested.

Sylvie and Willa retreated to our front porch. From the sidewalk, one of the older girls pulled out a smartphone, started playing a video on Zoomerang, and held it towards Sylvie and Willa. Laughing and pointing at the video and then back at Sylvie and Willa, they taunted and name-called.

“You’re such losers,” they said, adding far stronger derogative names.

Stunned and scared but not wanting to back down completely, Sylvie and Willa sat on our front porch, listening to the taunts and repeating:

“Stop.”

“Leave.”

“Go away.”

The older girls remained. One started banging on our front fence, continuing to laugh and call them names.

At this point, Sylvie sent Willa inside to get me. I had been completely unaware of what was unfolding in my front yard. When I came outside, the older girls ran.

The elephant in the front yard

There is more to this story, but I want to back up and address a few things.

Sylvie does not have a smartphone. She does not have a TikTok account or a Snapchat account. She uses a minimalist phone (the Light phone). She has access to a family iPad, which shares my Apple ID, and whose number she has shared with her friends so they can FaceTime and group text. It also means that she has access to things on the iPad that aren’t too dissimilar from what can be accessed on a smartphone, like the supposedly “kid-friendly” social media platform Zoomerang.  Zoomerang is really just a variation on all the others—users can post short, shareable videos with friends and followers.

Here’s the thing:

Yes, The Screentime Consultant’s kid technically uses social media. Zoomerang is social media. And so is BeReal, which she also uses. YouTube, which she uses at home, and, of course, and more problematically at school, is also social media.

If your kid uses any of these platforms (plus the obvious ones like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat), they, too, use social media.

I know a lot of parents don’t necessarily see them as social media, but that doesn’t actually matter. The issue isn’t what we call The Thing but how The Thing affects our children’s lives.

No social media before 16? Not so simple

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” and research emphasize the need for norm changes, including the need for “No social media until age 16.” Research shows social media harms youth mental health, distraction, social skills, and Haidt is 100% correct that children do not benefit from social media.

But enforcing the “No social media until 16” rule reminds me of the old Seinfeld episode about rental car reservations. In it, Jerry shows up to pick up his rental, and they see his reservation but have no physical car in the lot for him. He quips, in frustration, “You know how to take the reservation, but you don’t know how to hold the reservation.”

We know that children under 16 (or older, honestly) shouldn’t be on social media, but keeping them off it is much, much harder.

“Parents should just forbid it, say no, take the phone away,” argue those who either have very young children, work for Meta, or have no clue what their kids are really doing online.

If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be working so hard or receiving so many requests for help.

Kids figure out how to get what they want

Here are just a few ways kids get around the “No social media” rule (and I am sure there are many more):

  • YouTube. It’s social media. It’s easily accessible. It’s on all school computers, too—unless you explicitly ask for it to be blocked, and even then, there are backdoor ways to get to it. Kids just look up videos to circumvent parental controls.
  • Kids know the rule is “no,” and they do it anyway. Parents may have lax oversight over their kids’ devices or app store purchases or even great oversight, but kids are savvy, clever, and curious. Peer pressure is powerful, and kids don’t want to be left out. Some apps hide social media apps, so it may look like a kid doesn’t have social media accounts, but they do.
  • Kids use their friends’ phones. They create an account and log in from a friend’s device. Simple.
  • They use their school-issued computers to get on the internet, then use the browser applications for social media. If those are blocked, they Google “how to get around school filters,” figure out how to download a VPN or some other hack, and voila: social media.

All of this is a huge bummer and thwarts well-intentioned parents’ efforts to find effective solutions.

Quick fixes don’t work

If I had an easy fix for you, I’d definitely let you know. The approach we’ve taken in our house is to talk—constantly—about the harms and risks of social media, model how we use various apps and platforms on our own personal devices, and role-play all kinds of possible scenarios that crop up.

I know when the kids roll their eyes at us it is working.

When Sylvie wanted to download BeReal, we did it together.

We looked through the Terms and Conditions (BORING but so important).

We talked about each “person” she was friends with.

We talked about what to post—Do shopping “haul” videos highlight what you have vs. what others do not and make friends uncomfortable? Does posting videos of travel pictures reveal information about your location? What about pictures of you in your pajamas? If you take a photo in front of our house, do you show the house number?

We talked about how to respond to comments—to delete anything that was unkind, to make sure that only KNOWN friends were virtual friends, and to turn off the ability to leave comments (some apps allow this, others do not).

I often joke that if I were a dentist, we’d eat less sugar and floss more, but because I am The Screentime Consultant, we talk about screentime a lot.

So it’s not like we haven’t been having these conversations.

And yet…

When I came out to confront the older girls, Sylvie was in tears. She was shocked, upset, and mostly confused: “What did we do to them? What did I do wrong? We barely even know them!”

This is the crux of this issue: social dynamics are fraught in middle school. It is developmentally normal to have unprovoked conflict between peers. experience unkindness, and not know how to respond.

Cruelty in middle school is real, but it’s not new

Rosalind Wiseman wrote her book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World in 2002. The iconic movie Mean Girls, which was based on this book, came out in 2004.

That was 20 years ago.

And if we go back further, to your middle school days– What do you remember?

If I asked you to name the “socially powerful” kids, you’d know exactly who I’m talking about, wouldn’t you?

If I asked you to describe an embarrassing moment, not only could you tell me in great detail (like the time I got pantsed in 7th grade P.E. while turning the Double Dutch jump ropes), but you can remember the feelings of mortification, which friends came to help, or who abandoned you in your time of need.

Right?

(And how glad are you now, looking back, that those popular kids, mean girls, or bullies did not have smartphones with cameras and social media platforms with hundreds– or thousands– of “friends”?)

Or take Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department. Her song, “Thank you, Aimee” is all about being bullied by, as some fans believe, Kim Kardashian. Pop culture, TV shows, movies, novels, and plays–are all filled with examples of these painful, awful moments in adolescence.

When I taught 7th grade, I witnessed so much of this. If you’d asked me then, as the teacher, which students had social power, I could easily name them. But of course, my job as a teacher was to get to know each student–to see them not for their social label but for their adolescent complexity, which more often than not included struggles of their own.

This isn’t new.

Hurt people hurt people. Those who are hurt, hurt others. It’s not an excuse to do harm, I’d tell my students and my own kids, but it’s an explanation.

Where these storylines of normal, painful, sometimes deeply cruel moments of youth diverge, however, is when there is access to internet-connected devices. What has fundamentally changed since our middle school days, or even my early years as a teacher, is the advent of social media and smartphones. (Again, see Haidt’s work for ample evidence of this.)

Social media weaponizes these painful moments of adolescence.

Social media allows for silly videos in the hands of friends to become ammunition for the cruelty of those who seek to hurt or belittle others.

Social media validates cruelty in the forms of follows, likes, and algorithm boosts.

Social media rewards and encourages the worst parts of ourselves to flourish, and for adolescents, this happens at a time when brains are rewiring.

Social media is death by a thousand paper cuts, not a one-off interaction.

Anecdotes like what Sylvie experienced are abundant. We don’t have to look farther than our own literal yards to see evidence of the harm.

So it’s time to get real, parents.

The solution? Strong relationships and modeling behavior

It’s time to have some uncomfortable conversations ourselves—about our own use of social media, about how we’re parenting around the topic of “allowing” it when, in reality, it’s not that simple, and about how our parenting peers are going to need to be held accountable, too.

So many parents are in denial:

“Not my kid.” 

“We don’t allow it.” 

“She would never…” 

Stop. Defensiveness only exacerbates the problem

Keep Haidt’s norm shifts at the forefront of this, but remember that simply saying “No to social media” isn’t enough. We have a lot of work to do too.

It may not be our “fault” that things have gotten so difficult, but it is still our responsibility as parents to do as much as we can to mitigate, teach, and model.

The antidote to addiction and loneliness is connection. Not digital connection. IRL connection.

That starts at home, with our own kids, while also pushing back on Big Tech, EdTech, and working together with other parents.

I was so impressed that Sylvie and Willa, in the heat of this painful experience, chose to ask for my help. That was absolutely the right thing to do, and I told them so. They also owned that their own use of expletives was, perhaps, less than ideal, but I also understood. They were reacting to an unprovoked assault.

Sylvie and I are going to continue to have many conversations about this. She was afraid to go to school the next day. I did tell the school counselor, so there were school adults who knew, but I also told Sylvie I believe in her ability to do hard things, and doing hard things is an absolutely normal and very important part of growing up. (See Lenore Skenazy’s work for more on this.)

Several hours after the incident, I realized I still had one question. I asked Sylvie, “Why did you retreat to the front porch and not just come back inside when they were continuing to taunt you?”

She said, “Because sitting on my front porch made me feel powerful.”

Here’s to helping our children feel powerful in the face of scary moments, parents.

Read more:

The Screentime Consultant: 3 trends from parent surveys

The Screentime Consultant: Birds, bees and phones

The Screentime Consultant: On “child-friendly” devices

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.