We’ve heard a lot about the too-online teen. It’s indisputable that children are growing up more immersed in technology and the internet than ever before, which has led to a genre of pieces dedicated to the harms and benefits of growing up in front of screens. “Is Your Child a Digital Addict? Here’s What You Can Do” a headline in The New York Times’s parenting section advises. “There’s Worrying New Research About Kids’ Screen Time and Their Mental Health,” TIME frets.
Yet as any Gen Z teen well knows, many parents today, especially those on the younger end, are often just as online, if not more so, as their kids. According to a 2015 national survey by Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day on media use; yet a 2016 survey of parents found that they also spent an average of nine hours on their screens. We’ve heard a lot about kids who grow up as native internet users, but what is it like to grow up with parents who may be just as invested in their online life as their real ones?
“I think my step-mom’s online persona differs quite a bit,” Hayden, an 18-year-old senior in high school told me. He explained how his mom and step-mom have always been involved in local politics and community groups, but after his family all got smartphones they started participating more online than in person. His parents joined Facebook groups for his high school, got into community discussion forums, and downloaded NextDoor, the neighborhood-level social networking app. “Slowly technological things have replaced real world interactions for them,” Hayden says. “The online discourse replaced a lot of public forums.”
During the 2016 election, Hayden would watch his step-mom get into argument after argument with strangers online. “In real life she’s very mild mannered, easy to get along with, easygoing,” Hayden says. “But on the internet it’s a lot easier for her to be aggressive and unleash anger.” He recalled how she once argued with one of his fellow classmates on Facebook over his school play’s use of a transphobic slur (Hayden is transgender). His step-mom now avoids Hayden’s classmate whenever they go to the local movie theater he works at. In the meantime, Hayden tells me, “I had spoken to him and forgiven him and let go of it because I have to see these kids every day.”
Alycia, a 23-year-old from South Carolina who lives with her parents, told me about how her father will incessantly post selfies on Facebook and Instagram. “He posts a lot, even his family says that he posts way too much, the selfies, cars, or anything that he’s doing every single day.” She recalled one time when he was helping an old lady who fainted in the hospital, he posted a selfie of himself with her unconscious in the background. “I was like oh my god you have to take this off,” Alycia said.
Research shows that kids who think their parents who are too online often find that it negatively impacts their relationship. According to a 2019 Common Sense survey, children who think their parents are addicted to their device are 18 points more likely to believe that their parent’s behavior has hurt their relationship. Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University who studies "technoference," or everyday interruptions of interpersonal interactions due to technological devices, said that research showed that “adolescents whose parents had technoference towards them reported their parents were less warm and less supportive and felt less connected to their parents as a whole.”
What hasn’t been studied much is how kids may and or may not have shaped their own online identity around the way their parents use social media. I asked Hayden whether his step-mom’s investment in the online world has changed his. “I used to get into a lot of fights online during 2016,” Hayden says. “Then I saw my stepmother get all worked up about it and from a third party perspective, I was like wow that’s ridiculous, we’re sitting here with family and she’s talking about some guy from Texas arguing with a CNN comment on a Facebook post.” He says he now makes an effort to use social media more personally, and only interact with his friends and close people in his life.
Arianna, a 17-year-old who lives in New Jersey, tells me that her mother, who is 40 years old, loves to post to Facebook and Snapchat. “When it comes to restaurants, the phone eats first, Snapchat eats first,” she said, referencing her mom’s habit of making them wait to eat whenever they went out to restaurants so she could post a photo to her stories. Arianna also told me about how her mother constantly posts heavily edited selfies, even, at times, editing pictures of her daughter.
“It made me realize that I don’t want to post selfies ever. Like if you check my Instagram I don’t have a single selfie of me.” She told me that she tries to always think before she posts. “Putting meaning into it, not just showing off.”
Alycia echoed a similar sentiment after seeing her dad constantly post what he’s doing all the time. “I see how he uses the internet, he uses it to post everything, I think that changes me a lot,” she said. “I realize you don’t have to post everything at every moment, you can just live in the moment.”
Yet no matter how kids feel about posting, naturally they often don’t have a lot of control over what their parents do anyways. A common thread among the young people I spoke to was that having parents who post a lot also meant they posted a lot about you. “It feels like we’re the Kardashians,” Alycia joked. Her father, who is 45 years old, constantly posts pictures of her and her siblings. “Three girls and one boy, we’re Kim, Robb, Kourtney, and Khloe in a way.”
While a lot of attention is paid to how much time people spend on social media, the context and content matters as well. When it comes to parenting, Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and a developmental behavioral pediatrician, noted that it’s important to find a balance when using technology. “If you’re so preoccupied with this online space that feels more rewarding that you aren’t spending enough time working on the authentic parts of your relationship with your child that might need work, that’s where the balance may tip over,” Radesky said. Rather than just limiting screen time, parents should be intentional about how they’re using social media and the internet, and whether it’s in ways that connect or in ways than distract and deflect.
Radesky points out that parenting is one of the most stressful jobs. She’s sympathetic to parents who are very invested in curating their online persona or finding gratification online. She says that, rather than rushing to judgement, the question should be, “How else could they get either that sense of self or that sense of fulfillment or excitement, that doesn’t displace all this other time they could be working on the source of the parenting stress to begin with?” She suggests opening up conversations between parents and children as to how they use their time online and notes that it would be helpful for teens to be able to talk about what they think their parents are doing wrong or right.
The reaction from teens about having too online parents is not necessarily always negative—Kanika, an 18-year-old sophomore at Purdue University who grew up in the Bay Area, told me that her mother has used social media heavily for the last decade, mostly to connect with other Indian-Americans in the community. “I think it stemmed a lot from coming to the Bay Area from India when there wasn’t as much cultural diversity so they had to find ways to bond together and keep their culture alive within those pockets.” Kanika lists the apps that her mother is active on: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter. She says that there are times when they are out together and they’ll run into someone who her mother has only met online and stop to talk to them.
“It just made me a lot more comfortable with using the internet. There’s a lot of people who like to give this false persona of themselves on the internet,” Kanika said. “Seeing my mom still be herself on the internet was a good thing to have because I realized that I can be myself.”