Fifteen years ago, the teens who came into Ana Homayoun’s Green Ivy Consulting for tutoring reported that their primary distractions were parts of life that now seem simple relics of the good old days: their dogs; their next meal; their chattering siblings.
In the past decade, the distraction landscape transformed completely, as the rise of social media not only offered teens the entertainment of an endlessly scrolling Instagram feed, but tied their distractions closely to the tools students need in their academic lives. With more and more schools requiring a laptop or iPad for every student, going offline to stay focused simply isn’t an option, according to Homayoun.
“The biggest distractions from (students) getting their work done was actually the same thing they needed to get their work done, so there was this huge paradox,” she said.
Since founding Green Ivy Consulting in downtown Los Altos in 2001, Homayoun has provided academic coaching to students from approximately 20 local public and private schools, as well as clients abroad via Skype.
“Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World” (Corwin, 2017), which will be released Aug. 29, is Homayoun’s third book. Geared toward parents and educators, the book offers a framework for having productive conversations with teens and tweens about social media that adults may, at times, struggle even to understand.
Homayoun’s book cites the rapid proliferation of new social media platforms, and the complexity of kids’ social interactions on those platforms, as one reason parents may not be fully aware of what their kids are doing online. For example, even a parent who thinks he or she is keeping tabs on a teen’s Instagram may be unaware of the common use of “Finstagram,” or “fake Instagram,” accounts that tweens may create as decoys to prevent adults from finding their real – and secret – accounts.
Although it’s important for parents to understand what the social media landscape looks like for teens, and to “speak the language” of social media, Homa- youn said she doesn’t encourage parents to react to the unknowns of social media out of fear.
“Parents often think (you should) tell kids, ‘Oh, don’t do that because you won’t get into college,’ or ‘Oh, if people see that, you’ll get into trouble,’” she said. “We’re having the wrong conversations with kids. We scare them from seeking out help when they need help.”
Instead of employing the “fear factor,” Homayoun coaches parents to start conversations around the framework of healthy socialization, effective self-regulation and overall safety.
Within that framework, she said, parents and educators can help empower teens to determine whether their use of social media is helping them feel more or less connected to others socially, whether they’re making deliberate choices about the role social media plays in their lives and whether it’s contributing to their overall well-being.
“Most parents are, like, ‘Don’t get killed on the internet,’” Homayoun said of online safety. “But it’s also emotional safety, feeling like you belong, you’re included.”
She said that in her experience, it’s a powerful moment for teens when they realize that they can choose to opt in or out of the experiences they have online.
“You can filter in content or you can filter out,” she said. “That’s what my work works at giving kids permission to do. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean you have to take part in it.”
Both teens and adults, she added, are often shocked to learn – through the use of time-tracking apps – exactly how much time they spend on their phones.
“A kid will come in and say, ‘I have no time to do X, Y and Z. I’m so busy, I’m so busy,’” she said.
Homayoun recommends tracking their actual usage for a week, then checking back in.
“Suddenly they can find that half-hour or 45 minutes (for off- line activities),” she said. “Whether it’s playing the piano or reading a book or drawing, they might not have thought they had the time.”
Clusters of connection
“Social Media Wellness” touches on the need for a support system that reaches beyond parents alone, employing a network of what Homayoun calls “supporters and clarifiers.” When tweens develop “clusters of connection” that embody these two roles, then when something goes wrong online, she said they have multiple people to turn to.
While supporters might be the true-blue friends a tween can count on during tough times, clarifiers – the adults who can provide clarity and guidance in the midst of tumult – could also take the form of counselors, clergy or aunts and uncles.
By sitting down with kids to discuss who they’d reach out to if the parents were unavailable – or if the kids didn’t want to turn to them – parents can help make sure that kids know who their supportive connections are before they’re needed.
“As your kid is becoming a teenager and they want to differentiate themselves, maybe they don’t come to you for everything,” she said of parents.
When this conversation happens early, Homayoun said, students are well equipped to deal with concerns ranging from cyberbullying to seeing something online that makes them worry about a friend’s welfare. A tween who has already identified clusters of connection or community can have in mind three or four different people to whom they can turn right away.
“They have what I call the ‘crisis PR team,’” Homayoun said, “the people they can turn to when something doesn’t go as planned.”
“Social Media Wellness” will be available on Amazon.com and at major book retailers.
Homayoun is scheduled to appear 7 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Los Altos Youth Center, 1 N. San Antonio Road, for a conversation on “Social Media Wellness” with Margaret Miller, dean of students at St. Francis High School. Linden Tree Books is sponsor of the event. For more information, visit anahomayoun.com/events.