Sunday, September 10, 2017

Social Media: Abstinence Only?

There has been a lot of discussion in my neck of the woods lately regarding the effect of social media use on our students (I teach in a high school). This is partially due to our own experiences dealing with teens and social media, partially due to some recent tragedies in our community, and partially due to a recent article in The Atlantic.

This is an important and necessary conversation to have with our students, and one we should be having all the time, not just when tragedy strikes. But one response that some folks have been advocating concerns me - the idea of having "technology-free" days or weeks. To be perfectly clear, I am not saying this is always a bad idea and, for some folks, this is probably a good thing. But that's the key idea, it's good for "some" folks. But I worry that this is another case of the "adults" suggesting a one-size-fits-all solution in the hopes of solving a complicated problem with a simple solution.

My concern is that instead of focusing on how to use social media well, we may be sending the message that the solution is to get off of social media for some amount of time (and perhaps do that on a regular basis). To be sure, that may be a good strategy for some of our students, but if we don't focus more on how they handle social media when they are not taking a break from it, I think we are missing the bigger picture.

The analogy that comes to mind is sex education. This is obviously a controversial topic for many folks, but I think the parallels are pretty striking. Teenagers are going to use social media, just like many teenagers are going to have sex. Our choice is to ignore it completely, address it with a simple solution that is unlikely to work, or address it with a more complete, complex and complicated approach that might actually make a difference.

The obvious comparison is to the "abstinence only" approach that is advocated by some folks for sex education. The argument is complicated, but many folks suggest that the only 100% effective "solution" to teenage sex is to avoid having sex altogether. Longtime readers of this blog won't be surprised that I don't agree with that approach, but agree with the much more comprehensive approach of talking about healthy relationships (including sexual relationships), as well as talking about practicing safe and responsible sex.

Part of my concern around "abstinence only", whether it is applied to sex or to social media, is the implied moral judgment that comes with it. It is not just that we are trying to protect our students, but that we are implicitly making a judgment on their behavior and trying to apply our own moral code to all of our students (some of whom may disagree with our moral code).

I'm a parent of a teenage daughter, so this is not just a theoretical situation for me. Like most parents, I would prefer that she not have sex until after I'm dead. But, barring unforeseen accident or illness, that is pretty unlikely, so we have had many conversations with her about healthy relationships, the physical and emotional impacts of having sex, and our belief that sex goes along with long-term, stable, and healthy relationships (note: there is still some moral judgment there, but we also talk about how she may come to her own conclusions that are different than ours), and that practicing safe and responsible sex is important.

While I am by no means a historian of this topic, I feel that much of the response to teen sex - and now to teen social media use - comes from our Puritan heritage in the United States. I would suggest this is not all that helpful for our students today, and that there is a fair amount of hypocrisy in some of the positions we take. By definition, almost all parents have had sex and, in the United States at least, the majority of them had sex before they were married. Similarly, when we wring our hands in angst over teen social media use, how many of us are doing that wringing via Facebook or Twitter? (Quick quiz - how many of you first came across that Atlantic article via some form of social media?) Plus we seem to be mighty picky in what solutions we advocate. As a friend of mine pointed out, we know that homework also has tremendous mental health implications for our students (and arguably more than social media), yet very few schools are advocating for a "homework-free" day or week (or month, or year).

So, what's my solution? Well, like the articles I linked to above demonstrate, as well as danah boyd's book - it's complicated. But I fear that when we advocate for "technology-free" days or weeks, we lose many of the nuances and are perhaps hoping for a "solution" that is quick and easy instead of being willing to do the hard (and on-going) work necessary to help our students be safe, responsible, and productive users of social media.


  1. Thank you for this article, Karl...I get involved in heated discussions on the same topic at the start of every year. The potential benefits dictate education and support for good decision-making skills development and not a locked down, "you're better if you put it away completely" approach.

    I usually use the adage, "it's not a Horcrux," but I think I'll be able to connect much more effectively using your sex education and "abstinence only" analogy. Thanks for that!!

  2. Thank you for you article and drawing attention to "screen usage." I highly recommend "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology And The Business OF Keeping Us Hooked" (Adam Alter, 2017) and "Glow Kids:How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids - And How To Break The Trance" (Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D. and addiction specialist). Many of us in the healthcare field view "screen dependence" as a health issue, especially on our children whose brains are still developing and are easily conditioned and changed by the degree of access and exposure of both passive and interactive screen consumption. It's not about "banning" technology. It's about establishing balance with non-screen time. "Finding balance" is something kids (and adults) can connect with as we apply this to other areas of our lives and healthy living. Thank you. Holli Kenley,MA,MFT