Thinking Through the Immersion Dilemma: What if My Teen’s Life is Governed by Media & Technology?

Over the past couple of years, I have spoken and written much about issues related to our youth’s use of media and technology. In addition to this series, further reading is also available in the 2013 January and September edition of Just Thinking. As part of these series, I briefly addressed the question many parents have: What should I do if my teens (or even kids) are immersed in technology in ways that I worry have become unhealthy and intrusive?  Many parents today acknowledge concerns about teen usage patterns, but most parents also worry that drastic changes in what is permitted would be too difficult for their teens to adjust.  It is a difficult dilemma for many reasons, and although I continue to consider recommendations given in the September edition as my “gold standard” in encouraging optimal development and well-being, I want to provide further reflection for parents who do not feel they can, or should, put these in place for their adolescents. Given this, I propose a few different options and considerations in ultimately making decisions that parents feel is best for their adolescents and their family.

Initial Considerations for Change: Many parents express fear about increasing restrictions for technology use. Given this, the following considerations are given to make it more conducive for parents to take a countercultural stance.

Begin the conversation with teens before changes go into place:  Before parents ever make clear changes to rules and restrictions about technology, they should begin by talking to their youth about the concerns they have.  Don’t expect this conversation to go well, and don’t be surprised if youth suddenly become defensive and wary about what may come.  But as parents work to remain level-headed about their concerns, there is a greater likelihood that their youth will come to better understand that future changes are not simply about parents exercising a totalitarian regime, but actually about true concern for their well-being.  Some parents might even be surprised, as teens are often quick to admit stressors that come with always being linked in even as they reach for their mobile device.

Begin conversations & sharing of information with other parents, teachers, caregivers, family members, etc…: It is very hard for most parents to “go alone” when it comes putting restrictions on technology use even though sometimes this may be necessary.  Given this, I feel it is critical for parents of children in the same school/grades, youth group, sports teams, etc…to have open dialogue and information sharing about teen technology usage.  I believe that most parents will find others have similar concerns, but may be fearful about voicing this publicly.  However, once a more open forum occurs, a greater sense of solidarity and safety will likely emerge that empowers parents to take steps that they feel has their teen’s best interests at heart.

Actively work to create family experiences not reliant on technology:  Many families struggle today to disconnect because much of their leisure and family time is centered on a screen.  We as parents often struggle to disconnect from technology, too.  So, when parents look to consider changes in technology usage, they not only fear that their teen’s social life will suffer (and maybe theirs), but that family life will be strained significantly.  So, before parents alter their teen’s usage significantly, they must take time to consider a number of options that are available to their family to experience each other, and the world around them, in a positive way.  Be willing to spend money in other places that may have previously been used for technology.  It would be prudent to begin incorporating some of these activities into your family time before any restrictions are made.  Then it may not be as difficult a transition when teens have found that other outlets are enjoyable.  The same can be done with time spent with friends if teens are given opportunities and outlets that do not require technology, such as hiking, baking, canoeing, a building project, volunteering, etc…

Consider ways to improve parental health and well-being:  Oftentimes, the best thing a parent can do for their youth is to address areas of their own well-being that may be suffering.  Parenting itself takes a tremendous amount of energy and emotional regulation, but especially when their offspring are challenging them about particular expectations or restrictions.  Some nights, a thirty minute jog and a book quietly read may be the most important intervention parents can do for their teen.

What Our Teens Need:  Teens themselves need reasons and ways to justify living counter to many of their peers.  A few ways that this is made easier is as follows:

Provide teens with built in excuses and an alibi:  Many teens do not want to engage in illicit affairs, but struggle to justify this prudence themselves.  What we all needed at this age was a reason to say “no thank you” or “I can’t – my parents will kill me.”  As a parent, then, part of our role is being the “fall guy”, and allowing our teen to convey that he or she has strict (and conscientious) parents who will abide by what they say (when it comes to consequences and sanctions). Alibis can also come from sanctions imposed regarding extra-curricular activities, especially when they know that school personnel and others will absolutely reinforce rules and consequences that govern acceptable behavior.  Thereby, teens have a better chance of espousing the idea that it isn’t worth taking the chance getting caught if resulting consequences are worse and more inconvenient than pleasures or conveniences they may pursue.  Without us as adults in this role of setting clear limits, expectations, and consequences, many teens will repeatedly fall prey to unhealthy habits.

Teens need examples of dynamic values, not just trite stand-ins:  One of the ways that teens will be able to most likely make good decisions, and tolerate the uneasiness that comes with being left out of the “technology rat race” (or any trendy rat race for that matter) is that parents consistently convey and model similar alternatives.  That is, that parents themselves consciously make choices that are consistent with their values and beliefs, even if it leaves them looking different or antiquated in certain ways.  When parents unveil benefits for the “road less-travelled” and still remain relevant and connected to many others, teens are more likely to embrace, and be motivated by a similar course, instead of feeling that they will be ostracized for being different.  This is a challenge we all face in striving to live an authentic life based on conscious decisions for the good.  Too often, we find ourselves acquiescing to societal trends simply because “this is the way it is now.”

Adolescents need permission from many fronts to make good decisions, and know that things will be okay:  For all teens, there is a need to know that every decision is not “the end of the world.”  Although some adolescents may have difficulty recognizing this given their stage of life, parents need to consciously, and calmly talk through many options which might avert their teens’ worst fears.  But, in the end, parents must work to convey a sense of confidence, not all-knowingness, that alternative decisions do not necessarily lead to a dark place.

General Guidelines: Regardless of what steps parents take to facilitate more appropriate technology usage for teens, I feel that the following house rules remain very critical. The more that these guidelines are in place, the less risk that teens incur.

Any illicit usage results in loss of privileges: Many parents express fear of taking a teen’s mobile device away or shutting down a social networking site, even when they discover that illicit use, such as sexting or pornographic trafficking, has occurred. But if parents allow these fears to prevent from taking appropriate action, they are in effect telling their teens that “privileged” use of technology is a “necessity” that outranks a parent’s authoritative role and rule/values of the family.  One of the biggest reasons a teen would avoid inappropriate usage is if they know that it would certainly result in loss of technology privileges.

Full access to all mobile devices and electronics:   Youth should not be allowed to have passwords unknown to parents.  At any point that parents discover this has occurred, it should result in automatic loss of privileges, which may include other electronic access.  Teens should expect that parents can and will randomly check phone logs, internet search records, etc…at any time.  Privacy expectations of today’s youth have been seriously misconstrued as a result of having technology that enables it, not because teens of today deserve more privacy than teens of the 80’s.

Set “time off” periods every night and at other designated times: Teens should not be allowed to take their mobile devices to bed with them, and most preferably, there should be a set time in the home (depending on ages) that all electronics are turned off.  If teens violate this, then again, they should lose privileges, and parents may have to take the mobile device at a certain time to make sure this occurs.  Parents should also consider other “time off” periods during the day and week, including dinner, family outings, and even 1-2 nights a week of a technology moratorium.  This is most effective if parents themselves participate in these “time off” periods, too.

No screen access in the bedroom:  This is a difficult one for multiple reasons, but is just as important as the rest.  Television, laptops, and gaming systems in the bedroom are open invitations to many undesirable viewings and interactions.  In addition, teens who have data plans must either leave their phone in a public place (or again, lose the privilege of use if they do not) or parents should consider contracts that allow a youth’s mobile device to not have internet access.

Inappropriate content must be restricted:  Some parents understandably challenge this guideline by saying that teens will find ways to watch or engage in inappropriate activities no matter what restrictions are in place.  To some degree this is true.  But findings suggest that a large majority of illicit experiences (virtual or otherwise) and media influence often occurs in the home.  This recommendation is not about assuming that we as parents can completely prevent teens from experiencing all inappropriate material before they leave the home.  It is about two ideas.  One, significantly reducing the percentage of inappropriate viewing can and does make a huge difference for many reasons, including brain development.

Two, it is making sure that what we permit our children to do in our home is consistent with the values that we profess. For example, if a parent teaches their youth that promiscuity is something that carries many risks and that sexual activity is intended for a marital relationship, but repeatedly allows movies and televisions to be viewed at home that clearly promote promiscuity and a callous attitude towards sexuality, then they are unintentionally undermining our own teachings.  This is especially true if we fail to even provide our own commentary if youth view developmentally inappropriate material in our presence.  And if this occurs, there is a good chance that teens will assume that the discrepancy means that their parent’s beliefs are only in speech, not in practice.

Final Thoughts:  These are very difficult times to raise kids, maybe more difficult than ever before.  This is ironic, as many threats (such as communicable illnesses) have been largely curbed or eliminated, and conveniences abound.  But never before have there been such dire perils in our own homes and in the seemingly innocuous distractions that dominate our days.  Ultimately, any change or countercultural stance will require a fair degree of courage, and perceived risk.  If the tide is to ebb regarding technology usage (as I feel it should), it will simply not happen without a tolerance for fear and vulnerability.  But fear will be lessened as we work together to confront the problems associated with technology immersion.  Ultimately, certain things must be lost in order for much to be gained.  It seems that never before was this truer than now.

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