The media is rife with insinuations that social media is ruining our children. Study after study pops up (in our social media feeds, ironically) to remind us that our digital-native children are probably, or definitely, going to turn into listless, catatonic shells of themselves lest we wrestle their devices from their vampirically pale fingers. Social media makes kids depressed. Texting destroys kids’ communication skills. And, the latest claim to gain traction among worried parents: it “steals their boredom,” i.e., kills their creativity.
Someone pulled an excerpt from Glennon Doyle’s book, “Untamed,” the gist of which is that social media is depriving the world of potential future Mozarts, Monets, and Morimotos.
“I find myself worrying most that when we hand our children phones we steal their boredom from them,” Doyle writes. “As a result, we are raising a generation of writers who will never start writing, artists who will never start doodling, chefs who will never make a mess of the kitchen, athletes who will never kick a ball against a wall, musicians who will never pick up their aunt’s guitar and start strumming.”
It’s a lovely quote, as in, the writing is such that it draws you in and makes you feel immediately terrified for today’s youth to the point of almost triggering a panic attack. As earnest as Doyle’s concern may be, this quote makes me want to barf. Because, in addition to being drippily sanctimonious, it’s also just wrong.
When we talk about the things that “worry” us, we parents need to ask ourselves if our fears are supported by evidence or if we are simply parroting or rephrasing something that on the surface seems like it makes sense but when you dig deeper is really just the same fear-mongering about “young people these days” that has plagued every single generation since the beginning of inventing things.
Socrates himself, viewed as the founder of Western philosophy, famously believed that writing was a terrible idea. He said it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.”
In fact, every single time a new technology is introduced, older generations give themselves a hernia over how it’s going to destroy humanity. From books to education in general to newspapers to radio to TV … each of these new technologies that were designed to store, send, and receive information was seen as a threat to humanity.
Yes, social media and the internet at large has its problematic parts. And yes, we should be aware of those and take steps to avoid harm. But, like so many other technologies, the internet is what you make of it. And where are the studies that acknowledge how much social media has contributed to creativity?
My kids have both greatly enhanced their creativity by watching other creators create, mainly via YouTube. My 14-year-old son taught himself piano, coding, and lots of cool stuff about outer space and science in general. And when I say my son taught himself piano, I do not mean “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I mean he taught himself to play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” a work he likely wouldn’t have known existed were the internet not at his fingertips.
My 11-year-old daughter taught herself to draw, paint, create cartoons, and mold clay. My nieces pick up gymnastics and soccer drills to help them be better athletes. One of them taught herself to bake. All this creativity was a direct result of their access to social media.
My family’s kids are not the only ones using social media for creative inspiration, though. I posted on Facebook to ask other parents if their kids had undergone similar creative evolutions, and the comment section filled with stories of positive experiences.
“My daughter, who is high functioning autistic, has taught herself to sing,” Kristy, from Washington state, tells Scary Mommy. “[She’s] gained more confidence with singing in places other than just her room, from YouTube.”
Valerie, from Wisconsin, says her 14-year-old son taught himself to code using the internet. “He recently won one of the nationwide Scratch coding contests,” she tells Scary Mommy.
Tracy, a mom of three boys from Illinois, said her sons didn’t have anyone around growing up who was handy with tools, so they taught themselves how to do basic household maintenance and even some plumbing and electrical using YouTube.
As a violin and viola teacher, I regularly use YouTube as a teaching supplement for my students. I assign at least one video per week for them to listen to and study. What I wouldn’t have given to have had YouTube as a resource when I was a young viola student! I am one-hundred percent certain I would have been at least twice as good of a player. Most music teachers will tell you, today’s young musicians are better than pre-social media generations. I have no doubt this is because the internet has increased accessibility to some of the greatest players in the world, and because tutorials abound for every conceivable instrument and style of music.
And if you’re skeptical that kids are using social media in incredibly creative ways, join TikTok and get your mind blown. Gen Z is dancing, singing, rapping, playing instruments, cooking, baking, flipping, sporting, dog-training … it just never stops. The creativity is simply limitless, and because these kids are so connected — via social media — they are teaching each other.
Watch one of those impressive athletic or dance or singing TikToks — how many tries do you think it took to get that little 60-second clip just right? What’s that word for when you repeat the same thing over and over until you get it just how you want it? Oh, right: practice. And that’s what a lot of these kids are doing. They are not just staring mindlessly at a screen while their lives slip away from them. They’re practicing. They are in fact stretching the limits of their creativity.
We adults need to quit assuming that we have a full understanding of our kids’ social worlds when we haven’t yet taken the time to actively engage and find out what exactly our kids are really getting out of social media. Let’s not make the mistake of previous generations and mindlessly accuse young generations of rotting their brains with the latest technology. Because, the truth is, the internet and social media are not either good or bad. Like most things, they are whatever you make of them.