Interview: Counselor Lauren Garrett on Altamont's New Social Media Guide

Frasier Horton

Frasier Horton

Tuesday, March 19, 2024
Interview: Counselor Lauren Garrett on Altamont's New Social Media Guide

Photo by Karolina Grabowska, courtesy of Pexels

There's no shortage of research showing how social media -- particularly when easily accessible on portable smart phones -- have affected our lives, our sources of information, our politics, our relationships, and even our brains. This school year, Altamont published its first ever Social Media and Technology Safety Guide. It's meant mainly for parents, but anyone can read it. The Acta Diurna's Frasier Horton recently interviewed its author, Head Student Assistance Counselor Lauren Garrett.

Horton: I guess I'll start with the most obvious question: What prompted you to create something like this? 

Garrett: Over the years I have received a lot of questions from parents about when I thought it would be appropriate for their child to have a phone, or when they should have social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok. I decided that it might be helpful to create a comprehensive social media guide filled with research and links that parents could read and get a better grasp on when they expose their child to this world.  

Who was involved in its creation? 

I compiled questions I've gotten over the years and did my best to sort through relevant research to answer the questions and provide strong resources for parents. Mr. [Eddy] Dunn helped in terms of security on our computers and some of the conversations around what’s being done while students are at school ... I also asked Mrs. [Danielle] W-A [Wattleton-Anderson], Mrs. [Lia] Gerety, Mrs. [J.P.] Hemingway and Ms. [Kate] Smith to weigh in with their own insight. 

I was particularly drawn to this question of “What if my child says 'but all of my friends have _______? It’s the only way I can socialize!'” It’s an extremely common question about a tactic that even I have used, so how do you help parents with that? 

Setting boundaries around social media and technology can be difficult for parents, especially when their children do not agree with them. So, parents often ask how they can respond when their child expresses this sentiment. I wanted to offer encouragement to parents that it is okay to set boundaries for their child and that their child may not have the same permissions as their friends.   

It's important to remember that no child is the same, so the answer to when they are ready for social media is going to be child-dependent in terms of their maturity and responsibility.  Parents should try to recognize levels of maturity and responsibility of their child in order to determine answers for their family ... There’s no set-in-stone answer on when the exact [right] time is. Realizing this can help parents filter outside influences and make decisions based on their own child and their own family values rather than based on what their kids' friends are doing.

Another thing I found pretty interesting is the behavioral addiction part of it. When I was reading the guide, it kind of seemed like a sharp turn, in that the guide essentially comes from a “preventative” perspective, and then this extreme of addiction suddenly comes up. Could you talk to me a little more about that? 

Of course. Addiction to social media or technology may sound like an extreme, and of course it doesn't happen for everyone, but it’s important to remember that social media and/or technology are things that you can develop an addiction to. I felt it was important to talk about what that looks like and how to confront it. 

Take TikTok for example. When we scroll through hours of funny or interesting videos, our brains are receiving release after release of dopamine. When we stop, our brain continues to crave that release and we return to TikTok because it is a fast and easy way to get that release. Because our brains develop habits so quickly, we might soon develop an automatic response to turn to TikTok when we need to feel better. When we have boundaries around this, it is not a bad thing, but if it is constant or we become dependent -- meaning that we are not turning to healthy resources like friends or a relaxing activity when we feel bad -- that can be unhealthy. A similar effect can occur with video games and other social media apps.

Anything we do without boundaries and guidelines can become dangerous, even things we think of as healthy. Take exercising, for example: a person without boundaries is going to ignore [the signals] their body is sending and risk injuring themselves as a result. If you have boundaries in place where you take a rest day, stretch after working out, and/or notice when you're overdoing it, it can remain a healthy activity. 

Same thing with interacting with our friends: If we have no boundaries around social time, we might not recognize that we have other responsibilities to be fulfilled -- athletic practices or family engagements or homework to be done. If we continue down this path of not setting any boundaries around fun (which is a good thing!), then other parts of our lives might begin to be negatively affected.

The same thing goes for technology: With boundaries and expectations, it can be useful and beneficial. However, without these things, it can easily begin to negatively impact other areas of our lives.  

Last question. When I first read it, I guess I saw it as a threat, simply because, you know, the school is issuing an official social media guide ... hide your phones! It was hard for me at first not to see it as yet another warning about how bad processed food is or how I should be drinking eight glasses of water a day. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but how do you expect the school to respond to something like this? 

I think it goes back to what I said about every child being different. This guide is not the end-all be-all handbook on parenting. This guide is not meant to bring a change of rules at Altamont [but to] educate parents on what the developmental experts are saying so that they can make informed decisions for their families. It’s like you said with the water or processed food examples: realistically it’s hard for most people to do those things because nobody’s perfect, but, you know, we put boundaries on what we put into our bodies, and the mind is no different. I can spend hours on TikTok before bed, but I know that I’m going to have trouble falling asleep and will stay up later than I need to. Now, I’ll start reading a book before going to bed ... it does get my mind ready for sleep. Now does this mean that I’ve cut out TikTok? Absolutely not. But I can put boundaries around myself.  Remember, like I said, with boundaries and expectations technology and social media can be useful and beneficial. However, without these things, it can easily begin to negatively impact other areas of our lives.  

The guide offers a window into what experts agree is healthy for children and how the school is supporting that. We want to encourage parents to use the research in ways that best fit their families and their children. 

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