Britta Gustafson: Challenging students to hit pause on social media

What happens when kids pull the plug on social media — even for a little while?

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

It is probably better to have a childhood filled with imagination, scrapes and bruises than one filled with apps and “likes.” I feel lucky that when I was a kid, being “social” meant going outside and finding friends in person, not adding them on Facebook.

So I especially appreciate the “I’m Off Social Media Challenge” that Aspen Middle School is encouraging this week.

This year, students don’t have designated, no-phones-allowed outdoor education sessions to provide their annual social media reprieve.

For some students that is their only annual break. In past years, they’ve expressed to their teachers how different they feel when freed from the social media ecosystem, even if only for a week.

The challenge offers a self-disciplined approach to taking a break — but like any addiction, it’s hard to quit cold turkey without support.

The school is posing the question to their student body (and, by extension, to their families): “Social Media — are you controlling it, or is it controlling you?”

I wholeheartedly endorse a social media-free week, or month, or life. But culturally speaking, we are not always good at recognizing when something that feels good isn’t healthy — for us and for our children.

As parents, we usually tune in to issues that affect our kids; my hunch is that we still don’t have a handle on our own social media self-regulation and thus are unable to model good behaviors.

For adults, social media might be glorious fun. I haven’t participated actively enough to know, but it does seem like a colossal time-suck. And experts are convinced it is pretty damn addictive and can lead to mental health issues

Perhaps it’s a good communication tool but that too is riddled with contradictions. Fun but infuriating. Mass communication of disinformation. A place for self-expression that can lead to herd mentality. It can make you feel less alone but also trigger feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

When my kids were still very young, I had hopes that we would unite around the dangers of social media as a parental community. And I had hoped that the schools would take steps to prevent smartphones from being permitted in school. But they are allowed, in some instances even during class.

It can’t just be a parent problem, which frustrates me since social media is not something we value in my home. So will this challenge make a difference in the social media culture of our students?

From my sixth-grader’s perspective, the challenge will be easy to beat for those who are already anti-social media advocates, and even those who occasionally participate but have some understanding about its dangers, she said. But for those students who are already addicted, she believes the challenge won’t heed the advice.

I am only beginning to see what tween and teen life looks like during the peak of the social media era. I can not imagine how difficult it must be for these kids to navigate the tumultuous teen years, while also trying to also manage an online presence.

It’s distressing to hear stories of bullying and social disruption that social media is already causing with kids right here in our microcosm of the public school system.

My son, in fourth grade, recently mentioned that two of his classmates have started feuding over their social media posts, even though they are good friends. The fighting has landed both of them in the principal’s office more than once.

It became disruptive enough last week that the kids are now asked to turn their phones in before school and retrieve them after school. I’m surprised that it took so long to reach what seems to me like the logical solution.

The scary part of this social media experiment is that we will not likely know its true ramifications until these kids are a generation deep. By then, I fear, few will be left who can imagine a life without social media, unless we grown-ups support a shift away from the global addiction now.

Few consciously avoid it from the start. So I suppose that for parents and educators, it’s really up to us to dissect the pros and cons of social media and to than decide if it’s a space we want our kids to visit. I’m pretty sure that without it we can live better lives.

The solution that eases my mind is the notion of a stronger community in real life. But it takes effort to talk to one another, and social media is an obstacle to that as well.

So often the solutions to our problems live within the problem itself. We crave connection, and the need to feel social while becoming more isolated in a space called “social.”

What happens when the plug is pulled, even for a short hiatus? I’m standing by to find out.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at