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Erin Napier: I know keeping my kids off social media won't be easy — but I'm determined

Social media would have crushed me as a teen. I grew up in a world without that pressure, and I want my girls, Helen and Mae, to have the same opportunity.

Erin Napier, star of HGTV's "Home Town," a show in which she and her husband renovate historic homes in their Mississippi town, is on a mission to provide space for young people and families who want to break from the norm and abstain from social media, at least until they're older. In an essay for TODAY, she shares more about how her own childhood and adolescence inspired her desire to keep her daughters off social media.

Music was my thing in high school. I played guitar and sang every Thursday night at a coffee shop in downtown Laurel in Mississippi. It was a creative outlet, and there was no social media back then.

But something I think about a lot is: What if I had access to Instagram when I was in ninth grade, and I posted myself playing music, and someone made fun of me? I would feel like everybody saw it, and everybody was talking about it.

Erin and Ben Napier
I was in ninth grade when I started performing at a coffee shop in Laurel, Mississippi, and I did that through my senior year in high school. Courtesy Erin Napier

As the saying goes, "You can be the most delicious, juicy peach in the world, but there's still going to be someone who doesn't like peaches." As an adult, that’s a concept that I’m cool with. In ninth grade, it would have crushed me.

A lot of kids, especially girls, are vulnerable to criticism of the things that they enjoy, or are doing, or are making, or the way they look. They aren't equipped to deal with the emotional fallout of hundreds of people having an opinion about them, and of being aware of what that opinion is.

I graduated high school in 2003, and I got a Facebook account my junior year of college. Facebook was very primitive, and I would play a show in college and share photos, then a group of 50 or 100 people that I knew personally would see it and comment on it. Not the whole world.

I didn't have a smartphone until I was 28.

My relationship with social media started to change when I was 31, after "Home Town" premiered. My Instagram suddenly had thousands of followers I didn't know.

Social media is a form of community, in one sense, and it’s a great way to connect with people who might have similar interests. But people following me on Instagram feel like they know me, and they don’t.

I started to realize while I could post something and know exactly what I meant by it, I couldn't control what the person reading it thought I meant by it. Feeling like you're misunderstood is very frustrating, even as an adult, and that's when I realized social media was never real.

Erin and Ben Napier
After our show "Home Town" premiered on HGTV in 2016, I got a spike of Instagram follows from people who didn't know me, and whom I didn't know.Courtesy Bethany Byrd

None of it cut me too deep, but if I was younger and didn't really know who I was, it would have really hurt my feelings.

However, when my daughter Helen, who's now 5, was very young, I posted a picture of her, and someone criticized the way she looked. It made me see red. It made my blood boil.

And it seems like the criticism always comes from other women. It feels like betrayal when a fellow mother has the gall to criticize your child or your parenting.

When Helen was first born, my husband, Ben, and I, along with three other families, made an informal agreement to support each other in keeping our kids off social media and smartphones at large.

We don’t want our kids to be disconnected. We always have said, "We'll get landlines so they can call each other, and then when they're old enough to drive, we'll get them flip phones, and they can call and text each other." When they can drive, I hope to give them a phone with capabilities to play whatever music they like. That seminal teenage moment of independence — driving a car while playing that perfect song for the first time — is an experience I can’t wait for our girls to have.

Earlier this year, my friend Jenny told me her daughter is struggling because she is feeling like an outcast as the last of her friends to not have a smart phone or social media. It made me think, why don’t we just give this idea that we formed with three other families a name, where people can have support in keeping their kids off social media and away from smartphones wherever they are?

Jenny’s story inspired me to start Osprey, a nonprofit that helps parents do just that through shaping a community for children that helps them feel normal for not having a cell phone and/or social media.

A lot of people are like, "You're so naive," for thinking we can keep our kids off of social media and away from cell phones. But it's not a forbidden fruit thing. We don't intend to ever treat it that way for our girls. What we intend to teach them is that you can live the most incredible life, and you can do and see and be anything in the world, if you are not tethered to something fake.

This is us teaching our children: You deserve more. And you are capable of a whole lot more if you can skip social media and cell phones until you're older. Until you’re ready, you’ll have your growing group of Osprey friends who are having the same low-tech adolescence.

Our two girls, Helen and Mae, who is 2, FaceTime their grandparents, but otherwise, they don't interact with iPhones and iPads.

Erin and Ben Napier
We're teaching our girls to be counterculture, to be different and to be bold about it. Courtesy Erin Napier

Helen has seen kids who are glued to their parents' phones, and one time she asked, "What are they doing on there?" I said, "I don't really know." She said, "But you said you use your phone for work," and I said, "Yeah, that is what I use it for. But phones also have a bad place, a scary place that I want to protect you from. You don't need to see the scary things."

Helen asks why some families do things that we don’t do, like let their kids use phones, and I say, “Every family is different. That family does it that way, and our family does it this way.”

Our focus in parenting our girls is raising them to be boldly unafraid to be who they are. It doesn't matter if your friend doesn't like this, but you like this. “Don’t yuck on anyone’s yum,” as we say.

We hope we're parenting them in a way that they already feel confident in who they are, and they don't think, "I have to be the same as everybody around me." Don't let social media on a phone be a thing that distracts you from being this amazing, incredible, talented, skilled person that you can be.

As told to Nicoletta Richardson