Don’t Let False Narratives Scare You in This Digital Age of Parenting

Recently, I published an article regarding our decision to not allow phones, social media, or gaming consoles for our kids until midway during their senior year in high school.  The article can be found here on my website, along with 50+ other articles and series detailing the science and reasons behind this decision.

As often occurs, this topic spurred various reactions, one of which was expressed by an anonymous (LB) commenter below:

So instead of working with your children to help them learn appropriate use of technology, you implant a Luddite attitude in them by imposing an artificial ban of it.  Oh sure, they can write lovely college essays about their non-conformity, but sooner or later they will have to join the real world, and they’ll find that you have not prepared them at all with your “theological, scientific, and experiential standpoint”

Over the years, this kind of false narrative has been often used to scare parents into providing tech options for their children even when they know it isn’t the best decision.  Said another way, parents have been acculturated to believe that if they don’t introduce phones and social media early enough, then it will impede a child’s ability to live in this “modern” world.  As technological innovation has become a false god in our society, parents feel they have no choice but to give into this perceived progress, or otherwise they might be called “Luddite” (or worse) themselves. 

But a closer look at this narrative uncovers what I believe are a few obvious fallacies and false paradigms, of which I will articulate further below. 

Case #1:  The amount of time and focus needed to acclimate our youth to technology is hugely overestimated.  The false narrative propagated above tells parents that in order for youth to function well in society, they have to spend many years actively engaged in social media and use of mobile devices before they are ready for adulthood in this digital world.  But even a cursory look at this argument reveals a few fatal flaws.  One, the amount of time youth really need to learn how to reasonably use phones and social media and be aware of potential pitfalls, is actually quite minimal, especially for those growing up as digital natives.  Given various adaptations, youth can quickly learn how to use devices and online formats in functional ways that provide for leisure, occupation, and socialization as they get older (if desired).  In our own home, even though our kids don’t have their own phones, I have readily witnessed how even our middle schoolers know their way around my wife’s iPhone without any difficulty, and can also be coached through possible dangers. 

If you doubt this, consider that millions (upon even billions) of digital non-natives (i.e., those born before the age of smartphones, social media, email, and even the internet) have figured out how to use this technology just fine even though they didn’t grow up with it in their homes.  In fact, a valid argument can be made that because they grew up without it, they are more able to use it in a functional, healthy way than their digital native counterparts, who are struggling more and more with online addiction, chronic distractibility, and other issues. 

Furthermore, as part of this particular false narrative, an underlying assumption has been propagated that if our kids don’t learn how to use phones and social media early, then they won’t be able to figure out the true technological innovation (e.g., involving various occupational fields) that has allowed our world to advance in different ways.  But again, even a brief examination uncovers flaws in this argument, the first which involves how most of our youth are actually using phones, gaming, and social media, which is not as an entry into a long-term career.  Rather, they are using it for social, leisure, and often illicit reasons that have nothing to do with either advancing the modern world into a better place, or helping them bridge into a career.  Any child who truly has interest in exploring technology for reasons of a career or calling, including our own, can easily be supported in this venture without needing a mobile device attached at the hip.

Case #2:  The goal is not to raise the most technologically savvy children; the goal is to raise the healthiest ones.  My wife and I are the first to admit that we may not be raising the next generation of computer programmers or game systems analysts, although if our children wanted to pursue either career while honoring a healthy lifestyle, we are fine with this.  But as the world is full of young kids proclaiming they want to be the next big YouTuber or professional gamer (while many critical careers are struggling to attract youthful takers), every single career pursuit is trumped by something more important.  Which is, pursuing a life of holistic health─physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.  This should be far more important than chasing the next tech trend that promises innovation at the highest level.  As our societies are struggling with epidemics of poor health and political, philosophical division, we are coming to fully realize what happens when we prioritize “innovation” over health and well-being.  Over the past few decades, parents have been implicitly (and even explicitly) told that they are just going to have to deal with the “side effects” of tech in the hands of their youth because keeping up with this these trends is the gold standard.  Yet as a VP of a psychology department with a 20-month waitlist to even see our trainees, it is becoming all too clear what happens when we prioritize “progress” over health, and I am not just talking about in the area of technology.  Our children will not be the most technologically savvy adults you will meet, and that is fine with us.  But we do hope they pursue a healthy and holy life first, and believe that if this is the priority, they will find family, friends, employers, and fellow citizens that embrace them in this way. 

Case #3:  Our society sanctions that youth aren’t ready for many privileges/responsibilities until a certain age; why do we feel differently about technology?  What has been curious, and sad at times, to see in this “technological experiment” of the past two decades is how our society has grappled with this notion of early tech contrary to how we appear resolved in many other areas involving other privileges and responsibilities.  Take for instance, the following:  driving, smoking, drinking, gambling, medical consent, renting cars, R or X rated movies, personal insurance policies, credit card/bank account ownership, and many other privileges.  In each case, our society has established a particular age by which a person can access this privilege.  This occurs for two basic reasons:  well-being of the individual and public good.  Setting these standards is an attempt (even if not perfect) to balance both values in a way that ultimately provides for the best outcomes.  Using the example of driving, a case could certainly be made that 15-year-olds are physically and mentally equipped to drive alone, and that driving at this age could have certain benefits for social and convenience reasons (as having another driver at our house would be great for many reasons).  But as it currently stands, our society has deemed that while potential benefits do exist for 15-year-olds to drive independently─similar to how benefits can exist in certain situations for youth using social media or devices─the preponderance of evidence has led the state of Indiana, and most other states, to declare that you must be over the age of 16 to drive alone.  Even then, there are legal restrictions in place to do so (e.g., after getting license, for 180 days, you can’t have friends in the car without a licensed drive at least 25 years of age and can’t drive between 10 PM and 5 AM, among other restrictions until the age of 18). 

Yet when it comes to the current climate of youth and technology, we have somehow been fed a notion that youth need to have access at earlier and earlier ages, even when a massive body of evidence has emerged to indicate that the costs outweigh the benefits for most.  All of this led me to propose an argument a little while back considering similar legal restrictions for mobile devices and social media.  Far from being Luddite, the focus is on being logical and discerning, just as many citizens were decades ago before a legal driving or drinking age was established.  Just because any entity may have positive benefits, like a modest amount of alcohol can for health and social reasons, doesn’t mean that this trumps the most important determination, which is what is best for an individual and society as a whole.  When the costs outweigh the benefits, it is time to consider just what restrictions need to be put into place, no matter what the trends. 

Case #4:  What constitutes “appropriate use of technology for youth” has yet to be established, and even when we think it is occurring, it doesn’t protect against inherent threats in the technology itself. 

As the tech experiment rages on, there are countless professional and personal opinions emerging about what constitutes “an appropriate use of technology” for youth (and for that matter adults).  This shouldn’t be surprising as it has been less than twenty years since the iPhone was released and Facebook found its way onto college campuses.  Like anything this new, it is expected that there would be much uncertainty about how these new entities should be handled in society.  And yet for various reasons, early in the process, parents have often been falsely informed that restricting certain aspects of technology—ironically at ages when the brain is most susceptible to its programming—is somehow not the appropriate way to manage it with their kids.  For over a decade, as a parent myself, I have repeatedly been frustrated by articles and exposes that uncover serious threats that technology imposes on youth, only then to follow with tepid advice mired in monitoring and educating.  While both are important pieces of how we as parents should manage this newfound challenge, the past decade has made it increasingly clear that they are insufficient in providing for the health and well-being of our youth.  As waitlists, suicides, loneliness, and all sorts of negative indicators skyrocket for youth and young adults (not just because of technology, but partly because of it), it is becoming undeniably clear that restrictions need to be imposed in areas where monitoring and education aren’t enough to counteract how technology preys on immaturity.

Even if agreement on “appropriate use” could occur, and was implemented in our homes, what we have found is that our children can be poisoned through “responsible” usage because many tech companies prioritize one thing (profit) over all other (well-being).  As one example of many tech transgressions, a Wall Street Journal report found that Facebook had been hiding research conducted over the past three years, which found that Instagram is harming youth — especially teen girls.

Among many findings, almost one third of girls polled revealed that when they were feeling poorly about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Six percent of American users and 13% of British users traced their suicidal thoughts back to Instagram. In general, the data was clear that for many youth, Instagram is an unhealthy place to be.  In situations like these, many parents may have worked to monitor and educate their youth about the potential harms, and yet harms still occurred because the platforms themselves enabled an unhealthy outcome.  Thus, as youth go through an intense period of brain development that affects the rest of their life, the most reasonable safeguard often turns out to be delay and restriction.

There are other cases to be made, but all of us should be engaged in conversations such as the four cases presented above if we really care about the plight of our youth and our world.  Consider what Dr. Mitch Prinstein, Chief Science Officer for the American Psychological Association, recently said about social media:

We have already seen how this has created tremendous vulnerabilities to our way of life.  It’s even scarier to consider how this might be changing brain development for an entire generation of youth. . . Our brains [speaking of all people] were not built for this kind of social interaction.  And social media is kind of hijacking the need for social interaction with something artificial and insufficient.  Social media is the empty calories of social interaction.

Finally, to the anonymous commenter who provided the catalyst for this article, I appreciate your engagement in this topic.  But I must admit that anonymous trolling is just one more sad side effect of the technological age.  Devoid of almost any benefit, with a focus on creating greater division, it relegates communication to a cold commodity in which an individual can only be seen for his or her vituperative agenda, and not any caring considerations which might be hidden under disparaging font. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *