Nothing is quite so difficult as raising a child. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take many new parents to realise that when you have a baby, you’re not just “having a baby”, you’re raising a person. Never will this be more apparent than when your children are teenagers. Adolescent, hormonal, deeply self-conscious, and full of new, complex emotions they don’t have the bandwidth to handle alone and are too embarrassed to talk about openly.
There is little that’s harder than raising teenagers, and a lot of their newfound independence will go toward founding and forging their social networks. In this century there are about a million different devices that will allow them to engage these networks like never before. The internet, while handy, revolutionary, and utterly necessary to life in this day and age, the social implications of the internet and those who use it are far-reaching; and we’re starting to see its effects. So much of how we, and our society’s teens engage with the world will be through their personal devices. So how do parents go about policing their kids’ screen time? How do we talk to our teenagers about the dangers of screen overuse? And more importantly, how do we engage in meaningful interactions with our kids in an age where interactions are less and less frequently face-to-face?
The Truth vs. the Fiction
Unless you have some kind of Graduate Certificate in Youth Mental Health, don’t make the assumption that everything you read about teenagers is true, or at least comprehensive. Teenagers are constantly going through complex stages of emotional growth and they likely will until they hit their 30’s. Many people tend to write off teenagers at this time as over-emotional, impulsive, ignorant, or just plain dumb; and while there is some truth to that, it is far too little acknowledged that teenagers are under immense social pressure.
Using smartphones and computers constantly isn’t just for entertainment or laziness, it’s the most effective way to manage the social sphere. It’s the most efficient way to keep up with news and updates on their interests, the quickest way to spread gossip, the most up-to-date information checker, and the only way of feeding the beast inside that is constantly seeking the reassurance that everything is okay.
For a long time, the narrative has been that teens are addicted to their screens because screens are addictive. While there is an element of truth to that, it’s far easier to say that screens give them easier access to what they’re actually addicted to – validation. Teenagers are often, even if they don’t seem like it, hyper aware of the world around them, and how insignificant a place they have in it. They hear about wars, international tensions, global warming, and daily social unrest and they are intensely aware of their powerlessness to do anything about it.
So how do we help them?
Don’t Be A Boomer
If you’ve been online at all since 2019 then you’ve almost definitely heard the phrase “ok boomer.” The eponymous “baby boomer” stereotype that this meme is directed to is someone that is ignorant, resistant to change, generally right-winged, and somewhat of a luddite.
If you punish your teen for using screens too much or take the screens away, you’re going to be nothing more than a boomer to them; an ignorant technophobe dinosaur who just doesn’t get it. How do we avoid this image? Show them otherwise. Be cool with their tech use, use your own tech too. Have conversations about your online interactions with them. Ask them about netiquette, or how to do certain things on your devices, but most importantly, set the example of healthy boundaries.
Let them see that you’re consciously taking breaks from it. Crack open a book after a while of being on your phone. Use that to engage them: “Hey <name>, can you google for me when this author was born/what people think of this book/when the book was published/how to pronounce a character’s name?” etc.
We aren’t saying that technology will improve your relationship with your kid, but interacting with them this way is far better than “I told you to get off your damn phone!” and then the resulting screaming match.
A lot of the work for setting up your teenagers for a healthy relationship with their devices will in fact be laid before they even come into their teens. When kids are infants, there is an increasing number of parents giving their babies their phones to play with. Then when those kids get older they get a device of their own to stay in touch with their parents.
Good policies in theory, but then that kid who has been taught as an infant that their device provides entertainment and security grows into a teen that uses their phone constantly, they get reprimanded for it. Then parents are surprised as though the attitude sprang from nowhere.
When your child is an infant, go for walks, read books, play with toys, watch cartoons, feed animals, and invent games. Showing your kids that there is a life outside a device begins in their formative years, and comes from showing them that the world itself is fun enough. Then, when they’re deemed responsible enough to have a device of their own, it’ll probably get a pretty big hold on them. After all these devices are pretty essential to daily life for everyone.
But, they won’t need it the way tech-raised kids might.
Being A Parent
It’s tough work, and your teens will resist your every attempt at nurturing and caretaking every step of the way. And although the numerous health conditions caused by excessive screen use can be intensely terrifying, it’s important to remember two key things:
- Your teenager likely feels the only measure of control they have is through that device.
- Teens are hardwired to think that their parents, and their parents only, are idiots.
Be humble, be patient, teach by example, and always respect your teen’s privacy. If you show them that you’re there for them, love them, and respect their autonomy, they’ll rarely have a problem putting it down when needed.