There's a better place to start -- and that's a honest look at your own motivation and virtue.
Yesterday I picked up my phone to find a picture from this summer, and as I was scrolling through the last week of August I found a solid wall of unfamiliar photos — 127 of them, to be exact. One hundred and twenty-seven selfies of my 9-year-old.
I was shaking my head in disbelief, already rising from the chair to go and talk with her about why she felt like she needed to take a selfie, much less 127 of them, when I scrolled a little further back and saw another wall of pictures — 23 selfies of myself.
Part of my mind had already marshaled a defense for the slew of selfies, complete with several exhibits on why the situations were different, but luckily my epic (and literal) facepalm was enough to shut it down. There was no way I could talk with my kid about the vanity of selfies when I was 100 percent guilty of that same vanity — a point that Jamie Lee Curtis makes clear in this op-ed for NBC, Parents, put down your phones. Your children are watching:
If our children spend their time looking at us looking our phones — at ourselves on our phones, for that matter — scrolling constantly all day, it’s telling them that they should do it, too. But the problem is bigger than that: I’m mortified by what I see on a daily basis on people’s social media profiles. There’s an obsession with other people’s personal lives, and people are obsessed with themselves, which children can’t help but pick up on …
It begins with compare and despair: Think about how it feels when you, as an adult, compare your life to those you see in your Instagram feed. It feels like you’re not having fun like they are, you’re not eating food the way they all are, you don’t look the way they all do.
Yes, that second problem is much bigger than the first — and I’m pretty sure it’s that second problem that creates the first.
Sure, I use my phone all day for work. I’m constantly calling, texting, and emailing — it’s a grind that can absorb my attention too much, but it’s also a different kind of absorption than when I’m scrolling through social media.
When I’m working, I can usually either break away to help with homework, or I can request a five-minute wait and wrap up whatever I’m currently doing before helping. The kids can tell when I’m in work mode that my attention is elsewhere, but they also know that once I can shift gears my attention won’t linger elsewhere.
Social media is a different story. If I’m scrolling through Facebook, usually I’ll listen half-heartedly to their question and then give them a half-thought-out response, never really shifting my attention to them, but never really having it fixed on something else either. Instead, I’ve been increasingly aware that time spent on social media is like a weird in-between vortex where I’m focused on everything and nothing all at the same time — and when I do manage to focus, it’s because something on social media relates back to (you guessed it) me.
It’s a totally unhealthy dynamic and I am starting to loathe it more day by day. If I lack discipline one day and begin scrolling through Facebook, by 5 p.m. I am so depressed that I want to crawl into a hole. Weirdly, it doesn’t even matter if I don’t see anything that makes me “compare and despair” — just being in that space makes me feel genuinely terrible about everything and everyone, including myself.
Being aware of it is half the battle. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m intellectually honest with myself about how much of social media interaction — mine and everyone else’s — is some form of ego-stoking, and I often manage to catch myself before I go looking for some kind of digital affirmation. Likewise, I’ve gotten so much better about recognizing the creeping “Facebook blues” that I can usually stop myself before I get there.
So maybe the thing to do isn’t to avoid a conversation with my 9-year-old about the selfie thing — maybe the thing to do is talk with her about why she took all those selfies, and why I took the selfies I did, and whether those reasons are virtuous. There’s no way to hide our kids from social media, but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel — let’s start teaching them the things we’ve had to learn the hard way … both good and bad.
If we’re lucky, maybe they won’t have to learn it the same way.