My friend who has two small children said to me the other day, “You’re so lucky your kids are older. You don’t have to worry about social media. Parenting is so much harder in the age of technology!”
Parenting is hard, I’ll agree with that. My kids were born in 1994, 1997 and 1998. For many years, we didn’t have to worry about Ipads and smartphones, but we did have to worry if our kids were glued to the TV for too long. We wondered if our kids spent too much time taking care of their Tamagotchi (remember those?). We had to worry about why their bedroom doors were closed, figure out what to do about bullying, and make sure our kids got enough sleep, ate healthy meals, and told us what was on their minds. Even without Ipads or smartphones, we had kids who retreated from the family sometimes, got angry, who thought it was funny to laugh when other kids said mean things, who wanted to be right, and who didn’t see the value in learning some stuff at school. We took those challenges as they were presented to us to try to parent the best we could.
The truth is, with each new challenge, we needed to figure out how to parent. As parents, we have to educate ourselves about the issues of the day, and then we have to make conscious decisions about what kind of parents we want to be. With technology, we also have to balance the fact that technology is fantastic. I can communicate many times a day with my kids and see pictures of what they’re up to. I can Facetime or Skype when they’re far away. I can e-mail and collaborate on google docs, which makes work much easier and leaves more time for the family. I can do courses online, read many different articles and newspapers, follow podcasts and, of course, have access to a world of information. And so can my kids.
We can’t forget the challenge of being a kid in the age of social media. I’ve observed (too many times) little kids who are trying to speak to their parents and their parents are too busy on their cell phones to respond. Parents aren’t sure how to regulate or create non-negotiables around screen time, when to permit it, how to manage the expenses associated with screens, or how to maximize or limit time on screens. It’s hard. Think about smartphones or binge watching – we can’t seem to regulate use of those for ourselves. It seems that kids are underparented with technology because parents are just figuring it out.
Although parents have heard some of this before, we need to parent technology proactively and responsibly. We know it’s great to sit and watch TV or videos with our kids sometimes. Certain apps can be incredibly engaging and interesting for kids, and a good use of some of their time. We know parents worry that too much technology or social media is affecting kids willingness to engage in physical activities – so we have to act accordingly.
Did you know that over 75% of parents in the US help their kids under13 create a profile on Facebook? The question is, why? Are parents giving their children access to social media for a reason? Are parents supporting their kids to understand the dos and don’ts of Facebook and believe that this is a good way to learn? Are parents talking about information on Facebook with their kids to figure out what is true, what is false and what is inappropriate? Are the parents that are banning Facebook doing so because they don’t want to deal with it until they have to?
In my opinion, parenting in the age of technology and social media requires the same basic moral stance that parenting in the age of TV required – the same as parenting in the age of artificial intelligence will require. I believe it starts with asking. “What makes sense, for what purpose, and what kind of kids do we want as a result?” I think 3 basic ideas still stand for parenting in the age of technology.
1. Keep the lines of communication open
Just as we expect our children will be respectful in person, they should be respectful of us and others on social media. In order to ensure this, parents should “follow” their kids online, not because we are stalking them (and we shouldn’t) but because we need to know what’s going on in their lives. Talk to them (that’s different than questioning all the time) so they will share their experiences, questions and worries with you. Parents wouldn’t allow their kids to go out and not know where they are – so we wouldn’t allow our kids to be “online” without knowing where they are, who they are with and where they are “going”. All of this takes communication at a high level.
2. Establish both rules and trust
Parents need to establish rules and have trust with their kids. Some things are non-negotiable. When kids are young, those non-negotiables will be different than when kids are older. One would be that parents must have their children’s passwords. Another would be that if you ask your child to remove a post, he/she must. A third would be that kids shouldn’t charge their devices in their rooms after bedtime. These are just 3 non-negotiables for younger kids, but the idea is clear. If your kids can’t be trusted, you are sunk. If your child doesn’t follow the rules, be strong and take away the device temporarily. It’s important that kids know the rules are not to be broken, but if the rules are followed, then more latitude is possible.
3. Teach your kids to be critical of information
This isn’t new, but it’s becoming more crucial. I was reading the Toronto Star newspaper with my daughter and we were discussing the biased language used to report on the new metropolis in Rawabi. One paragraph reads, “This is the occupied West Bank, a hornet’s nest of a home to 2.6 million Palestinians, brigades of Israel soldiers and 400,000 Jewish settlers who have come to claim the land they say was awarded to them by history and God. Certainly, a conversation ensued about that perspective, and we didn’t even read it online!
Just this week, my son and I listened to a podcast called “The Road to Tyranny”. It was, in small part, about how to understand American politics through an understanding of dictatorships in the 20th century. The podcast was a conversation between an Oxford educated professor at Yale and a philosopher with a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. And, guess what? We talked about it afterwards, trying to sort out the messages, decide if we agreed or disagreed and understand how this helps us understand the news of the day out of the White House. But we both could agree that sources were credible and worth a discussion.
As well, this week, my kids shared memes on Facebook, text messaged and posted pictures on Instagram (yes – I follow them). They sent and received snapchats, I assume. They also played FIFA and NHL2017 online with strangers. No – I don’t want to know everything they are doing and they don’t want me to know – the same way my parents didn’t know every book or article I read or every TV show I watched (that Phil Donohue was pretty racy in his time). However, the important part here is to share information and have open door communication. That might be part of the formula. Walk the talk. If you don’t want your kids to swear, don’t swear. If you don’t want your kids on the cell phone at meals, put yours away.
So lots has changed, but lots has stayed the same. Raising kids is hard work. Kids need structure, flexibility, limits, lots of communication, two-way trust and, certainly, some freedom within the structure.
I’m not going to deny that technology and social media make parenting hard – partly because it’s new and very big – but it is possible to apply some of the same “parenting ideas that work” to parenting technology. Of course, we all know there are incredible benefits to technology and, by the way, it isn’t going away so we kind of HAVE to figure it out. Now excuse me while I go videochat with my daughter, check the messages on my smartphone, have a peek at Facebook and binge watch the new season of “House of Cards.” Oy!