Ali Wentworth shares her best tips on how to talk to your teenagers about social media's perils, pitfalls and best practices
Ali Wentworth, the actress and author of Go Ask Ali: Half-Baked Advice and Free Lemonade, is raising tween daughters Harper, 12, and Elliott, 15, with husband George Stephanopoulos. But having two public-facing parents doesn’t make her girls any less susceptible to the same challenges that any teen faces on social media. For Mother’s Day, Wentworth spoke to People about how she sets boundaries, has hard conversations and occasionally embraces the chaos of the “Wild West” internet with her two girls.
I didn’t grow up with social media, so I feel like my kids’ generation is kind of the guinea pigs for it. My personal feeling is that it’s a slippery slope. There are good things about it, and I think there are potentially really, really bad things about it. With my girls, we gave them a phone when they were in middle school. They were taking the school bus, just so they were able to get in touch with us if the bus broke down or something. That very quickly lead to, “Oh, can I have an Instagram? Everybody has an Instagram.” Once they get the phone, it’s very hard – you can’t really give them a flip phone and hope that they stay satisfied.
What I’ve started to realize with social media was a few things. One is that my daughters were being affected by the FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] issue. Which, by the way, as a 50 year old woman, so do I. I felt like I was constantly explaining to them that Instagram was curated and that everybody puts on their best face. Sure, it looks like everyone’s having fun at the sleepover, but I bet a few people went home and somebody threw up. You’re catching one quick glimpse of it. All of a sudden I realized, Oh, my God, this is so horrible that you can actually see the images of things that were happening without you. That was the first big hurdle.
Then, my own person opinion is that we’re sexualizing a whole generation of girls. I’m very, very vigilant about what they can post. They can post friends, puppies, cupcakes, but there’s no sexy-sexy, there’s no bikinis, there’s none of that stuff. Because, unfortunately, I’m always fighting a fight with them, of people they follow, that are 14 years old, totally sexualized in a public account, and I can’t wrap my head around it. I find myself constantly saying to my kids, “This is a girl who has a hole she’s trying to fill, and it’s not about that. You don’t need to do that.” Or I say to them, “There’s nothing more beautiful than an attractive woman who’s a biochemist. You don’t have to stick your ass up in the air on Instagram.” But, the truth is, that’s how girls get likes and hits and attention. So that’s a constant battle, I think. They all follow all these sexy, sexy girls and I don’t even know who they are.
Then the next level of that is, these girls are getting famous, and they’re getting sponsored. So there are all these young women, girls who are getting famous for just pictures of themselves. That’s the other thing that I feel like is sort of terrifying, because there’s no talent involved. There’s no, “Oh, she worked her way up from wherever.” It’s just like, “Oh, she’s getting a lot of money because she’s sexy and underage.” It’s all kind of disgusting to me. I look at everything they post. So if there’s even something slightly questionable, I say something. But they know what’s acceptable and what’s not, because I’m walking around the house preaching.
One of my daughters knows how to completely Photoshop. She can take a picture of me and make me look 10 pounds thinner and have no wrinkles. Excuse me! I go, “So what’s left? That’s not even me. I don’t even know who that is. I wish I looked like that, but I don’t.” I know for a fact, suicide rates have gone up, and they’ve gone up because of all these things: of kids not feeling popular enough, involved enough, liked enough.
I tell my girls all the time, the adrenaline that you feel when you hear a ding or get likes, is the same as when you play the slots in Vegas. It’s a very addictive thing. So we do try to limit the amount of time on the phone. There’s no phones during meals. They shouldn’t be on their phones while they’re doing their homework. There’s an app called OurPact.com, which is actually pretty great because you can connect all your kids’ phones to your phone. At night time when they should be asleep but they’re addicted to the light, you can turn their phones off – you can turn off Instagram or Twitter.
I don’t wait for them to ask me any questions, because I’m not sure they would, actually. I’m very open with them, and I’m constantly expressing my own opinion. They hear it a lot. When they were younger and first had phones, I did a lot of showing them photos and things. “Do you understand why this is so inappropriate? Do you understand why this is such a bad idea?” There are a lot of sick people out there. The same way when they were young and walking to school, I would do the [exercise]: “Okay, I’m driving by, I’m saying I lost my puppy.” You want them to be safe at all costs. I make it a discussion. It’s more about going through it with them and teaching them what I think is okay and not okay, and what’s important.
And [if your kids are struggling with it], I’d say to go on a social media cleanse. It’s so easy to go down that hole. As soon as you start looking at people who you don’t even know and you’ve never even met, then there’s a problem. It’s very easy to kind of be a voyeur in the world. I think it’s better to turn it off, especially if you’re going through a painful time. Just don’t look at it.