We began October by posting excerpts from a new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). Excerpt #2 ended with us breaking down media technology (MT) into three categories: communication, entertainment, and information. These three categories help us take a deeper look at how we are engaging with MT and how MT is shaping how our kid understand themselves and the world they live in. In this next excerpt, we take a closer look at our first category: communication.
Let’s start with communication.
What follows are two scenarios from my private practice. As you read, think about what is missing from the relationships described. What do children need from us to understand the importance of communication and its impact on friendship, intimacy, sexuality, and a strong sense of self?
Elsa, 13, is in my office, crying. Her boyfriend of six months has broken up with her. “How did it happen?” I ask. “He broke our streak!” she tells me. Now, because I see a great many teens, I know that a streak is the number of consecutive days that you have Snapchatted with someone. The length of your streak is ranked by the emojis next to your friend’s and your names and, for many 13-year-olds, emojis define the relationship. Today the streak had been broken.
“What did he say?” I ask.
“I haven’t talked to him,” she replies.
“Not at all?” I ask.
“He broke our streak! We’ve slipped to a yellow heart!”
“But you don’t really know what happened. Why don’t you call him?” I ask, risking her disdain that I could even imagine any other reason for his non-response.
“That would be too weird,” she replies. “He doesn’t like to talk on the phone.”
How is Elsa’s understanding of relationship being defined by the Snapchat platform? What is Elsa learning? What is she not learning?
On the same day, Amelia, 14, is in my office. She starts the session telling me that she is no longer interested in Byron.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well, he sent me something really disgusting on Snapchat,” she says.
“Oh,” I reply. “That sounds disappointing; I know you liked him. How did you respond?”
“I didn’t do anything,” she replies.
“Did you let him know you thought what he did was disgusting?”
“Oh no,” she says, sheepishly. “I didn’t want to break our streak.”
We can dismiss these scenarios as the insignificant drama of young teens. But it pays to look a little deeper. Adolescence is a time when learning how to negotiate the subtleties of social situations and handle emotions that come with one’s budding sexuality is far more important than learning how to take standardized tests. Yet, not only do we not teach children how to negotiate these challenges in an ethical way, we leave them to the structures of social media platforms to guide and make sense of these formative explorations. Snapchat seems to be designed with the young adolescent in mind. They can flirt, tease, and push the boundaries of intimacy, without risking the awkward pauses that come when trying to figure out if someone likes you or struggling to find the words to express complex feelings. The effort of getting to know someone is reduced to remembering to send a picture before 24 hours has passed. Who thinks to tell our children that sending naked pictures of themselves not only puts them at risk socially, but also betrays a sense of privacy that gives intimate relationships meaning and value? We don’t tell them because we do not live in a world where bits of ourselves can be sent instantaneously to anyone and, just as quickly, disappear. It was just a moment’s titillation, nothing more. How important can it be?
Have you ever watched a group of teens hanging out together? They do absolutely nothing. They just hang, often they mumble at each other, make a joke, tease, flirt, absorb each other’s company. Nothing is happening, yet from the perspective of adolescent development, everything is happening. They are exploring their sexual attraction, testing their capacity to express feelings, learning how others connect or detach, and coping with rejection. They are becoming part of a tribe, the tribe of their generation. Have you watched a group of teens hang together lately? They are all on their phones, perhaps texting or Snapchatting the person right next to them, safe from the anxiety of having to engage with complex sentences, the intensity of eye contact, or the subtle nuances of body language. In this MT world, you can’t see the immediate consequences of saying something inappropriate, and will not learn to find the acceptable line between flirtation and aggression. All of these experiences have been flattened and can be negotiated with emojis. The brilliance of social media is that it buffers the teen from the pain and anxiety of face-to-face social engagement, while at the same time offering continuous social connection.
What do children need from us to understand the importance of communication and its impact on friendship, intimacy, sexuality, and a strong sense of self?
Here is excerpt #2 from the new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). See our post from October 1 for excerpt #1.
My first clinical job as a therapist was working with immigrant families. These families had given everything they had for the chance to raise their kids in America; their hard work and sacrifice were inspiring. But these families were in trouble: both the structure and hierarchy of the family were being turned upside down. The teens in the family had equal if not greater power and status than their parents and grandparents. These teens had embraced the American culture that their parents had fought so hard to give them. They knew the language and understood the cultural norms of America better than their parents, elevating their status in the family and giving their opinions greater weight. This made it harder for parents to influence their behavior. These teens did not feel the need to listen and learn from the experience and wisdom of previous generations. But they were teens.
They needed a framework to help them understand, prioritize, and give meaning to all the new, fast, and exciting experiences they were having. They needed context that could root them in a value system and support them in assimilating the new, while sustaining a core identity grounded by a strong family. They needed parents who were not intimidated by this new culture, but secure in their values and aware that only with a strong sense of identity would their children fully benefit from the abundance of America.
Too often I saw parents helplessly watch as their values and traditions were diminished and their opinions dismissed. The American culture that that they sacrificed so much to provide was pushing their children farther and farther from the influence of their perspective and values.
Not all families underwent this disintegration. In the families that survived and thrived, parents held their place in the family hierarchy and maintained the power to say “no.” They structured their children’s engagement with American culture and insisted on time together as a family: when family values could be taught and sustained; when information and experiences could be brought into a meaningful context. Values, goals, and actions considered worthy of effort were both articulated and implicitly understood because parents modeled this behavior and structured how the family spent its time. Basic traditions and rituals—such as cooking and eating together, communicating respectfully to elders, and nurturing relationships with extended family—were honored. Maintaining these traditions reinforced the values that the parents held dear: loyalty, respect, integrity, gratitude, and generosity. The older generations took every opportunity to tell family stories that reinforced these values. These immigrant parents were proud that their children were becoming Americanized and, at the same time, were creating a bridge from the old to the new. With the advent of the internet, smartphones, and social media, we are all immigrant parents struggling to assimilate and thrive in a new world. Our children know more about this world than we do and they always will. The online world is changing so rapidly that we are facing a reality in which each generation of parents will have immigrant status in relation to their children. When the virtual reality revolution hits full swing, the contrast between generations will be even greater. Faced with this relentless acceleration, it has never been more important to think through our values and determine what we want our children to take with them as they navigate this new world.
Like immigrant parents, we want our children to experience the resources that the cyber world offers. We know they will need to master this environment in order to survive and thrive. We’ve worked hard to give them these opportunities. But now we need to examine our own values, evaluate how they are supported or diminished by this new world, and create structures for our children that nurture and support their well-being.
Where do we begin?
Media technology is so big and so embedded in our lives that it helps to break it down into specific, understandable parts. In my work with children and families, I have observed three distinct ways in which children engage the cyber world that have profound effects on how they think about themselves and the world they live in:
As parents and educators, we must look at how each of these three ways affects our children’s attitudes and behavior. Then we should ask ourselves:
If we take the time to do this work and model this behavior, we can support our children’s assimilation into this new world while retaining firmly rooted values that will keep them healthy, happy, and strong.
What are the values you want your children and/or students to bring with them into this new world?
Happy Fall! I hope you are all enjoying the excitement and energy of the new school year and are finding moments to refresh and renew. Chelsea and I have been traveling and presenting to schools across the country and continue to be moved by the continuous investment of time, care, and love that teachers and administrators pour into their work. We are inspired by the parents, who show up to our presentations, after a full day of work, hoping to find ways to better help their children become healthy, responsible human beings.
We live at a time when values, like saying what you mean and being accountable for your words, can seem arcane. And we are all witnessing what happens when words no longer matter. But how do we convey our values to our children, who more and more live in a digital world? Wherever Chelsea and I go, whether we are presenting on Sex and Sexuality or the Freedom of Self-Control, the questions return again and again to how we can teach values to children in an internet driven culture. Nothing seems more relevant.
Chelsea and I have spoken on this topic throughout the country. We have so much information to share. Many of you have asked for the book. For the next few months we are going to be blogging excerpts from the book we’ve been working on: Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World. We would love your feedback. This is a large and complex subject, so please bear with us, as we break it down and construct what we hope will be practical information that you can use with your child, today. Let us know how it goes!
Excerpt from Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017):
“You have to understand that [my daughter] Laura is an ‘A’ student. I never dreamed that I should be looking at her texts or emails. Then, last night I get a call from the parents of one of her guy friends; I knew she had a crush on him. His parents found nude pictures of Laura on their son’s computer. Why would she do that? I can’t get her to talk to me, and now she won’t even go to school. Do I take away her phone? It doesn’t seem possible to keep her off of social media.”
Our children live in a different world than we do. For that matter, our younger children are growing up in a different world than their older siblings. High school students in my private practice are stunned by what their middle school brothers and sisters are doing online. Whether it’s shock over a daughter’s sense of privacy (or lack thereof), fear of a son’s rage when removed from his video games, or dismay over students’ inability to sustain focus, parents and educators are swimming as fast as they can to keep up.
We all work hard to provide our children with the amazing tools of technology; we understand that giving them access to technology is vital if they are going to succeed. But what we are not prepared for is how these tools have morphed into a cyber environment that is altering our children’s behavior and changing how they interpret reality. Media technology (MT) is shaping how our children know who they are and what the world is about, how they form and understand friendship, how they determine right from wrong, and how they define happiness and success.
It is easy to get caught up in all that MT offers and lose sight of what is missing. Who hasn’t been captured by the magic of a new app that can find a song, identify a bird, locate the best restaurant, or tell you which constellation you are looking at on a star-filled night? How can we not be in awe of the human potential that is unleashed when so much information can be shared in every corner of the globe?
As we embrace this new technology, it is important that we are not blind to the limits of the cyber world. MT cannot provide the human context that helps our children understand what has meaning and value. Families transmit this human context from generation to generation through traditions, stories, conversations, and family relationships. It is this web of experiences that acculturates each generation of children to what the family understands is good and true. From this foundation, the child develops his personal values and identity, and learns how to make sense of the world.
In the accelerated world of the internet, it has become harder for families to provide this human context. As media technology consumes more and more of our time, human values like integrity, generosity, and respect for privacy compete with the cyber world that values fast, new, stimulating, and busy. We see the shift in our children’s attitudes and behavior but we don’t know what to do. (To be continued…)
As parents and educators, how do you sustain this human context and support your children in bringing human values into the digital world?