What started as a Thanksgiving hike became a movement to help parents push back against the digital tide of social media and learn how to control it so that it does not damage their children or their families.
Two East Valley women casually discussing social media last year during a family hike at Usery Pass in northeast Mesa decided their children were too young for smartphones.
Hillary Whalen of Gilbert and Jesika Harmon, then of Mesa, did more than just talk. They researched how obsessive use of social media can isolate teens, expose them to bullying and lead to depression.
“We couldn’t sit back and do nothing. We had to do something about it,’’ Whalen said.
Whalen and Harmon founded The New Norm, a nonprofit corporation that has put on two workshops in Gilbert.
The heavy turnout at the workshops indicates that The New Norm is reaching parents who feel overwhelmed by their children’s use of social media as society changes with the evolution of technology.
Some 600 parents turned out in May for the first gathering at a charter school, and 760 children and their parents attended a session last month at Gilbert’s Mesquite High School.
Word about the latest event spread like wildfire on the internet, including the Gilbert Public Schools and Mesa Public Schools websites, proving that social media can be used for constructive purposes.
The New Norm collaborated with Katie McPherson, a Chandler education consultant who long has lectured parents about the dangers of social media and the need to achieve balance through a contract that doesn’t cut off kids from social media but does limit its use through a consistent plan.
“People are more depressed, more anxious, more tired and less happy,’’ Whalen said. “Have you ever thought it might be the phone?
“We need to learn to put technology in the proper place,’’ she added. “It’s knowing when enough is enough and being able to put that phone down.’’
The overwhelming message at The New Norm’s workshops is that teenagers – and adults, for that matter – can be much happier living a real life and going through real-life experiences, rather than living vicariously through other people’s lives on Instagram or Facebook.
“When we let it enslave us and brain-hack us, we become addicted to it,’’ Whalen said. “This is a public health crisis affecting everyone.’’
Harmon, who now lives in Utah, said social media is difficult to avoid completely, but parents need to manage it.
“Unless we put it in the proper place, it takes over our life,’’ Harmon said. “Living in real life is so much better.’’
Susanna, a 15-year-old who spoke at the Gilbert workshop, said that spending about four hours a day on social media left her depressed and isolated from others, with her grades plummeting in school. She said she cut down to about 90 minutes a day, which one expert said is still way too much.
“True peace can’t be found on the internet. You can’t let something that weighs four ounces or less control our lives,’’ Susanna said.
Gwen, another teen who spoke at the workshop, said she agreed with her parents not to go on Instagram even though many of her friends were doing it, and she pursued a more old-fashioned approach in developing relationships.
“Most of my friends just shoot me a text and we talk all the time,’’ Gwen said. “I say, I don’t have Instagram, but I have a number. It allows people to get to know you and talk to you and find out what you are really like.’’
The East Valley Tribune is not using the teens’ full names because they are minors.
Other speakers, including McPherson, a former Gilbert junior high school principal, and Adam Brooks, another education consultant who worked as a director of special education in Phoenix schools, gave parents tips on controlling their teen’s use of special media, including setting a good example themselves.
“If we expect our kids to get off these devices, we need to look at how we use our devices as well,’’ McPherson said.
McPherson, now with ECRA Group, said parents have bowed to heavy marketing from the telecommunications industry by giving children phones too soon, then waiting too long to rein them in. She said the challenge is to lead technology, rather than allowing technology to lead them.
“You are paying thousands of dollars (in phone bills) to put a wedge between you and your child,’’ McPherson told the gathering.
“We handed our kids a cell phone and said good luck,’’ she said. “We are letting technology break down our family. We are losing relationships with our children.’’
She said social media often presents a distorted image of life, leaving out a person’s shortcomings and making the person pictured on Instagram look perfect. This problem is magnified when teens body-shame each other, using social media to bully teens far beyond a school hallway or playground.
“The whole experience leaves teens feeling inadequate, concluding “she’s prettier than me, she’s thinner than me,’’ McPherson said, leading to depression and even suicide. “You have to remember these brains are under-developed. They are jockeying for position in the social group.’’
Whalen has refused to give her children phones. She said that other children in her daughter’s fourth-grade class, who are about 9, already have smartphones.
“It’s important to have an open line of conversation with your children,’’ Whalen said, and to give them a role in developing a family plan on how to use social media, placing restrictions on how much it is used.
McPherson recommends that parents establish a central charging station for all devices and not allow teens to take them to their bedrooms at night. She said some teens get no sleep because they are staring at their screens.
“These children are not getting any sleep. You have to get devices out of the bedroom,’’ McPherson said.
McPherson also advocates use of a family social media plan, so that parents can limit the use of social media.
She said most social media providers have a minimum age limit of 13, but younger kids often lie to gain access. She said there is no magical age of when children can handle a smartphone, saying it depends upon their maturity level.
She said parents often make the mistake of giving children smartphones with little or no instructions or rules. When the child makes a bad mistake with the phone, the parent takes it away, only to give it back a week later, leading to confusion that accomplishes nothing.
Brooks said that he believes about 20 minutes a day on social media is more than enough for anyone.
Richard Estes of San Tan Valley, a computer programmer, said he hopes to put what he learned at the workshop into practice. He said his 15-year-old stepson spent as much as 16 hours a day this summer playing video games.
The experience is leaving the boy isolated and with declining social skills, Estes said. “He’d rather sit at a computer than hang out with his friends,’’ he said.