In early November, a teenage girl was rescued from her abductor by using a hand signal she learned on TikTok. “See, Mom. TikTok isn’t just dumb videos,” my 16-year-old son was quick to point out. He was tired of hearing me ask, “How many hours a day do you spend scrolling through this nonsense? And what’s a duet again?”
Social media often gets a bad rap from parents. It’s highly addictive (for them and for us, let’s be honest), and there is plenty of filth to wade through in apps from Twitter to TikTok. However, as that recent news story proves, it isn’t all bad.
During the week before Halloween this year, I found myself balancing a hollowed-out pumpkin on my head while running from a camera tripod set up on a pedestrian bridge in a local park. What was I doing, you might ask? I was connecting with my teenage son.
A few weeks earlier, he showed me TikTok videos of the #pumpkinheadphotoshoot. There were thousands of videos, some cute, some spooky, all including humans with jack o’lanterns on their heads.
“Let’s do this,” he casually mentioned.
“Um, no,” I responded immediately. “Those pumpkins have to be huge. And the goop. In our hair? Are you serious?”
He dropped it, but I didn’t.
Why had I been so quick to say no to something he was genuinely interested in doing with me? Earlier in the pandemic I was worried because he wasn’t engaging, and now I’m picky about HOW he’s engaging? So a few days later I brought it up again. Together we watched a few more videos, recruited my husband, and set a date.
The three of us chose outfits with our favorite sneakers, borrowed a tripod from a neighbor, and took some pretty amazing photos, if I do say so myself.
Yes, the pumpkins were heavy and incredibly uncomfortable. And yes, other people in the park did give us weird looks. (As for the goop in our hair, we avoided that problem by purchasing cheap shower caps from Target.) But the entire experience was worth it. My son and I posted photos on social media for some external gratification, but most of all, we made memories together.
TikTok isn’t the only app that allows us to make memories with our teens. Other moms I know use Pinterest boards to plan projects together. A new recipe that turns out like an episode of Nailed It! will definitely create a lasting memory.
If you’re the mom of teens, you know that getting them to willingly spend time with you can often feel akin to getting someone to sign up for an unnecessary colonoscopy. So if social media brings us together, I’m all for it.
Social media can bring us physically together to create new memories, but technology also brings us together virtually.
We were recently watching an episode of Only Murders in the Building when Steve Martin’s character, Charles, states, “Calls bother them for some reason,” referencing Selena Gomez’s character. In other words, Gen Z would much prefer texting. That’s certainly true for my sons. Mention making a phone call, and I’m afraid they’ll break out in hives.
As parents, we can use this to our advantage.
Since my sons have had their own phones, we’ve had a family group chat. Sometimes I text a reminder (“Don’t forget to unpack the dishwasher”), and other times I text something silly. Just this week I sent a tongue-in-cheek gif of John Oliver pretending to stir a pot with a comment about my younger son, our family’s resident stirrer-of-all-pots. Our texts can be poignant, too. On the night of his most recent birthday, my older son used the group chat to share some love and gratitude for the rest of us. He also sends me favorite encouraging song lyrics when he’s on the way to school.
Quick communication happens for us in Snapchat, too. I held off on that particular app as long as I could, but now I use it as an easy way to harness some connection.
A few months ago, my older son started a group on Snapchat titled “Everyone but Dad” (Sorry, Chris! You know it’s not personal!), where my sons and I send silly snaps. One son prefers extreme close-ups of his forehead, the other likes to out his brother by sending snaps of incomplete chores, and I like to send filtered photos of the dog. This isn’t a place for lengthy conversations. (My sons keep those for car rides or at night when I’m ready for bed.) But it’s a quick way to say, “I’m thinking of you.”
I’m not the only mom connecting through technology.
Tricia Netland Wencel sends her teenage sons screenshots of sweet and silly Facebook memories from their younger years. In a familiar refrain moms of everywhere, she says, “It annoys them now, but they’ll appreciate it later.”
Another mom of teenage sons, Traci Hildebrand-Smith, says, “Henry and I exchange pictures of cute animals we find online. I send Duncan puns. He sometimes responds!”
And that response, even if it’s a simple emoji or gif, is sometimes all us moms are looking for. When in-person conversations can feel like a trip to the dentist, in moments when I read way too much into my son’s sullen silence, I will take any response I can get.
A month ago I sent my son a TikTok video mimicking “white girls dancing.” He likes to mock my kitchen dance moves, and this particular TikTok made me wonder if there was a hidden camera in our house. “Do these moves look like mine?” I texted along with the video.
“That does look like you,” he replied with a laughing emoji.
In a season of parenting often marked by closed doors and sullen shrugs, that gentle teasing is welcome. As much as it might pain me to say it, I am thankful for technology as a means of communicating and creating memories with my teens.