Third Culture Kids and Social Media

This summer, The Atlantic published a fascinating article called Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? I encourage every parent, especially of tweens and teens, to read it and discuss it with your children.

I read the article with a particular mindset, that of a parent raising teenagers who also are Third Culture Kids. I wondered, how do these ideas apply to my own children? Keeping in touch is powerfully different for a suburban teen chatting with her friends from school than for a teen in Beirut chatting with her friends in Turkey or in Minnesota.

So how do TCKs, specifically, use social media? Both positively and negatively? How can we help our TCKs navigate this fraught world with wisdom and grace? I did a little unscientific survey and asked some TCKs for their perspectives.

Me Too. “Through our discovered solidarity, I’ve been able to let out a huge sigh of relief and say “…me too.” There is something profoundly powerful about knowing that you’re not alone in your existence. Thanks, Instagram.” Danai Mush (from an article for Hello Giggles called Third Culture Kids in an Age of Instagram)

Helps us educate people about the world. “Friends in our host country and our passport country can see life in the other place. We use social media to broaden people’s minds. To show a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Nairobi, Kenya. Or a plate of Ethiopian injera in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“Social media helps us broaden our (own) minds about the world.” (I love this comment because it comes from a teenager who has lived in five states and two countries and who has traveled to several other countries. She still wants to broaden her mind.)

Connection. This is the big one, isn’t it? One example is how two sisters use Google Hangout to have a Bible study with friends in Lebanon and in Colorado (while they lived in Minnesota). “Even though it takes a while to plan each time we meet to time differences and scheduling issues, we still have a blast when we meet.”

Prevents, or slows, engagement in the new location. Katha von Dessien wrote a 2-post series about nostalgia and the computer and TCKs, for Communicating Across Boundaries.

Skype calls, Instagram reminiscing, etc, can sometimes increase loneliness and longing, rather than soothe it, once the connection is cut.

TCKs struggle with the same temptations of gossip, bullying, addiction, and isolation from real life interactions that everyone faces with social media. But at the same time, they have unique needs that can be creatively met through these same networks. So how do we help our kids maintain a healthy balance?

It starts with having a healthy balance ourselves. We hand-wringing adults also walk around with our noses in our phones. We pull out our phones immediately after a movie, we wonder who is messaging us while we fly. We have to model putting the phone away and focusing on the person in front of us. No phones at meal times, no phones in bedrooms, time limits…

Cultivate an appreciation for the arts and nature. Sure, an Instagram photo can be lovely, but when you look at a photo of Victoria Falls, you don’t feel water splash your face. When you share a photo of a concert, you aren’t sharing the crush of people, the way your skin vibrated in beat, the way your shoes stuck to the goopy floor. So parents, take your kids out to the beach and the library and the museum. Not to post about it but to experience it.

Get physical. Move. Wrestle. Play football or cricket. Bake cookies. Have a dance party. Use your hands to do something other than text. University campuses are experiencing extremely low attendance at sports events or theater performances. Where are the students? In bed, on social media. So model activity and engagement while your TCKs are young.

Use social media not just to connect with friends from the previous country but to find new friends, in your new location. Use it to build a real, in-life community.

Cheer for power cuts. I’m thankful for how my kids barely blink when the power cuts. There is no freaking out that they can’t finish binge-watching a show or that they can’t immediately post a photo or snapchat message. It is good for kids to be happy with internet and without it.

Do you think TCKs have a unique need for, or way to engage with, social media? What has been your personal experience, for better and worse? Either as a parent or as a TCK?


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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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