We hope that this back-to-school season is off to a fantastic start, and that your summer was filled with some sweet, screen-free family time! Since last October, we have been posting excerpts from our book-in-progress: Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). Below you will find the last excerpt in this series, addressing the subtle shifts in our children’s behavior as more and more time is spent on digital distractions. You might have noticed that this topic is beginning to receive the much-needed attention it deserves; each day new articles detail the necessity for parents and educators to examine when and how children are engaging with screens. Over the last few months, we have experienced a surge of interest in our presentation and student curriculum from schools looking for ways to start and sustain a conversation with their parent and student bodies. We would love to hear from you on how your communities are addressing raising kids with human values in this increasingly digital world.
Lessons from Pinocchio:
In the Disney version of Pinocchio, the endearing wooden boy with a great propensity for lying is offered a trip to Pleasure Island where children are free to do anything they like, with no rules and no parents to dictate their behavior. For a while Pinocchio delights in the freedom. He eats nothing but candy, breaks things for the fun of it, smokes, drinks, steals…you get the picture. Jiminy Cricket, watching out for his friend, learns that Pleasure Island has a secret. The longer you play on Pleasure Island, the more you lose what makes you human—the children are slowly turning into donkeys. Once the transformation is complete, they are sold into slavery.
There are many reasons that children are drawn to games. Peter Gray is a clinical psychologist who has written extensively about the importance of free play in child development. Gray suggests that, unlike the past when parents would send their children out to play without adult supervision, there are very few places today where children can escape a hovering adult, except online. For the child, part of the thrill of online gaming is that they can explore an environment without being supervised. But this is not free play. When children are truly free to entertain themselves, they create the games, negotiate the rules, assign each other parts, play, argue, change the game, and eventually decide to do something else. Their activity is structured solely by their imagination and the cooperation of their friends. The online game is created by a team of adults. The structure is designed so that the child “wins” just enough to keep the adrenalin flowing. The goal is to keep him playing forever.
If you are going to take a strong stand against gaming, it is important to understand that free, unsupervised play is an important part of childhood. Connect with other parents and strategize about how to create environments where your kids can play without an adult watching every move, where children can experience independence without being shaped by game developers.
Throughout this book we’ll explore the many reasons why we turn to the cyber world for entertainment and you will have chances to create family guidelines that reflect your values. For now, focus on becoming aware of what you are modeling. Ask yourself how often, when, and why you are accessing online entertainment. How does it make you feel? When is it enhancing your life? What are you missing by escaping into the cyber world?
Take It Home
Check out excerpt #8 from our book-in-progress, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017)!
“Mom, do you know what a hooker and a stripper is?” My son was seven, and I was driving him home from school. I was surprised, to say the least. I assured him I did and asked if he knew what a hooker and stripper was. It turns out that, at recess, a friend described a video game he had played the day before at a 12-year-old’s house. In the game, if you killed enough people, you entered a room where a woman took off her top. That was a stripper, his friend explained. If you killed more people and got to a higher level of the game, you entered a room where a woman took off all her clothes. That, my son told me, was a hooker. What was most unnerving about this story is that by seven years old, despite my best and most diligent parenting, I could not prevent my son’s first exposure to the idea of naked women being a reward for violence.
Investigating further, I found out the mother of the seven-year-old didn’t know her son had played that game and the mother of the 12-year-old had no idea her son owned that game. Neither knew such online environments even existed. But their children had gone through that door and stayed for hours, learning about how men who kill are entitled to naked women.
There are so many subtle ways that games acculturate our children, yet most of us know next to nothing about the environment that we’ve given them. We would never be so lax if we were dropping our children off at someone’s house. We’d want to know if the environment was safe and that the people there had some sense of right and wrong. We’d make sure that things like hitting, cursing, stealing, shooting, and misogyny—at the very least—weren’t happening because we understand their profound impact on kids.
Today, we need to develop ways as a family and culture to protect our kids from environments that harm them. We need to ask the parents of our kids’ friends what types of games they have at home. We need to inform our kids that there are games that encourage people to be mean and violent and, even though they are “just games,” it’s never okay to have “fun” killing and humiliating others. We can be clear that, in the same way we wouldn’t want them to play at a house where people act that way, we don’t want them to play those kinds of games.
Of course, not all games have horrible values. Some games elicit creativity, compassion, and sharing. For some particularly shy kids, certain games help them connect to other children. I’ve had mothers of children with Asperger’s or social anxiety disorder tell me that video games have been a godsend, allowing otherwise isolated children to bond with peers. It’s wonderful when a socially anxious teen can make a connection in a chat room, or a teen with few friends can socialize with fellow gamers. That said, there are pitfalls in these situations as well.
Greg is an anxious 19-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, who barely finished high school and has been living in his parent’s basement for the last year. He games until dawn and sleeps all day. He has a number of online friendships with fellow gamers that matter a great deal to him. Among these friends he’s considered a leader. He’s intelligent and aware that he will not be able to sustain this current life, but he is unable to disengage. It’s easy to imagine that his parents could just unplug him. But until you have worked with the nightmare of gaming addiction, it’s impossible to understand how horrific a child’s response can be. Children threaten suicide, cut themselves, destroy property, attack their parents. Kids are hospitalized. Police are called. And it’s not just what they are learning from the game, it’s what they are not learning about life. The longer they play, the more they miss out on important life experiences needed to become independent human beings.
One day I asked Greg why the gaming world was preferable to life. “When I’m online, I’m a success,” he said. “When I’m offline, I’m a loser.” Sadly, whether he realizes it or not, his capacity to succeed in the real world diminishes with each passing day.
Not all kids will become addicted, but some will. And if you can’t justify placing your child’s brain in an environment that you do not have the time or ability to thoroughly examine, why spend your money bringing it into your house?
We loved engaging with many of you last week during our Live Q&A on Raising Kids in a Digital World. You can still find the video here. Keep the questions coming and let us know the topics you are most interested in. We will be planning more live events soon!
Below you will find the next excerpt from our book-in-progress: Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). Over the last few months, we have posted excerpts on how media technology (MT) shapes our children’s understanding of and access to communication and information. In this next excerpt, we explore the world of 24/7 entertainment.
Sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I watch a stressed-out Dad, with two arguing kids in tow, try to fill out a medical form. “Sit down, stop talking, and just play something on your phone!” he barks. The kids, about 7 and 9, whip out their phones and peace is restored.
Instant babysitter. But who exactly did he just hire to watch his kids?
In a world where we are always accessible, where the workday never ends, let’s forgive ourselves for using cheap childcare to help us keep our sanity. At the same time, let’s look at the price we pay when we become dependent on screens to get through the day and when we have no idea who’s entertaining our kids.
“How much screen time is okay for my kids?” is the question I hear most from parents. But it’s the wrong question.
It’s not “how much is too much;” it’s the quality of the environment that you’ve sent them to and what they are doing, experiencing, and learning when they are there. It’s also about what they are not doing, experiencing, and learning because they’ve escaped into the cyber world.
Online entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes from a quick game of Angry Birds© to World of Warcraft©, from a Netflix movie watched on your smartphone under the covers to porn. Having 24/7 access to entertainment changes how we live and—although much of it is harmless—all of it deserves to be consciously examined.
In my private practice, I see young people who do not stop gaming except to eat, sleep, and see me for one hour a week; panicked parents who just checked their browser history and realized their eight-year-old has been regularly accessing porn; and distraught moms whose husbands spend the precious few hours they have at home playing online Texas Hold’em©. How many couples have I seen in my office, complaining that tablets have ruined the precious time they have before bed!
Yes, we need a plan for our children…and for ourselves. We begin by acknowledging that the internet has fundamentally changed how we understand and engage with entertainment.
Pre-internet access to entertainment required some degree of effort and was dictated by when we could find the time. With the exception of music, we had to wait until there was a break in our work or school schedule before we could play a game, go bowling, or watch TV. It was easy enough to follow the old adage “work before play.”
In this new cyber world our time is much less structured. Work and play exist in the palm or our hands; always available. The decision of whether or not to play is constant. The cyber world ceaselessly beckons us to enter a different environment, an easy escape from the minute-to-minute reality of our lives. A quick game of Candy Crush© while waiting in the checkout line, a YouTube video in the hallway at school, a movie in the car on the way to Grandma’s, a few games of Spider Solitaire© before going to sleep. In a stressful world, it’s comforting to know that there is always someplace we can go—for a minute or two—if we don’t want to be where we are. Each engagement is harmless enough, but cumulatively these intermittent moments change our experience of life.
No child will be injured by watching a movie in the car. But given the few precious moments we have with our kids, and the even fewer moments kids have to fantasize and daydream, what are they missing when we plug them in? That bickering we’re trying to avoid by handing them an iPad or turning on a video is an important part of figuring out how to resolve conflict. In this new world, too often the life lesson they are learning is when things get tough, distract yourself.
Living in a world where we are always free to access entertainment demands the capacity to reflect on why we are choosing to escape, especially if attending to the moment we’re in would better serve us. We can start by reflecting on when and why we access online entertainment. Are we using it to inspire us? Distract us? Fill a moment devoid of stimulation? Buffer an awkward situation? Relax?
Never before have we had to dissect our behavior like this and it’s hard enough for adults. But it would be crazy to think that a child or teen with a developing brain, could come close to this level of insight and discrimination. Kids have a hard time stopping anything that’s fun, and online entertainment is a very different kind of fun.
This is particularly true of gaming. Online gaming is a carefully constructed world with its own rules, rewards for winning, incessant sounds that signify success or failure, and one overriding purpose: to keep our kids playing. Ads for games even brag about being “the most addictive ever.” It’s important for parents to know that this is literally true. With the help of neuroscientists, games are carefully constructed to simulate the reward patterns associated with drug addiction.
Our kids stay in these environments for hours at a time, learning what’s funny, acceptable, embarrassing, what it means to be a “winner,” and what the culture expects of a man and a woman.
Exciting news! Join us on Thursday, February 8, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. EST, for a Live Q&A on Raising Kids in a Digital World!
For the last four months, we have been posting excerpts from the new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2019). We have enjoyed the rich conversations with parents, teachers, and students as we present on this topic at schools across the continent. We want to keep the conversation going! During this live video stream, we (Sharon and Chelsea) will be answering your questions.
What’s true about the world?
The abundance of information at our fingertips today not only impacts what we believe to be important, it also shapes our understanding of what is true. Pre-internet, we relied on a handful of sources to inform us about global events: a few newspapers of record and three television channels. The downside was a significant lack of diversity in thought and perspective. The upside: we were pretty sure that the people responsible for these media outlets weren’t just grabbing the most provocative piece of gossip to fill a 24-hour news cycle or get “likes” on their blog. We trusted that journalistic standards were being followed.
Now, struggling to stay relevant in the age of Twitter, even trusted media outlets can become careless in their reporting, succumbing to the pressure of being first to report “breaking news.” How do we help our children decipher and value truth in a world where being “first” trumps being “accurate”?
65% of young adults say that the internet is their main source for news (Pew Research Center, 2011). Blogs, tweets, posts, and YouTube videos scramble for their attention, often without even the pretext of accuracy.
As we consider how this will shape young people’s understanding of the world, let’s look at how the brain is wired to process information. We know that human brains give added weight to things we hear first. Not only do we pay closer attention to something new, but that first impression creates the context against which everything else is assessed. Think about how this puts us at a particular disadvantage in the cyber world where speed is valued over accuracy. Whatever gets our attention first, true or not, shapes how we continue to perceive the topic.
The human brain is also influenced by repetition. This makes us particularly vulnerable to 24-hour news which, to fill time, recycles the same reports again and again. Additionally, the cyber world easily plays into the hands of those who wish to confabulate. Hiding behind phrases like, “I’ve heard that…”, “I don’t know if it’s true but…,” or “People are saying…,” commentators and bloggers can escape accountability and profoundly shape the conversation. The more outrageous the statement, the more likely it will be picked up and repeated…continuously. Our children need to understand that this is gossip, not news, and that techniques like this undermine our ability to gain accurate information. Likewise, the words we say—and the sources we select for truthful information and choose to repeat—matter a great deal to those listening to us.
As I travel throughout the country, I’m struck by how every school is trying to develop a strategy to teach children how to assess the veracity of their sources. This is not easy to do when adults often are less aware of what’s available online than their students. But we have to go one step further. We also need to teach children to consult a variety of sources for a fuller view of a subject: if they choose only to access sources that support their opinion, they will not have the context necessary to determine what is true.
In future chapters we will continue to address how we can help our children sort out what is important and what is true. At this point let’s start a conversation about the differences between reporting on the news and spreading gossip, how flashy headlines never can capture the nuances of current events, and how “fast” can never replace “true.”
What is true…about me?
The information our children access online doesn’t just affect how they see the world, it impacts how they see and understand themselves.
In our Sexual Health and Responsibility Curriculum, I show students a video of the photoshopping process used to alter digital images: how a fashion model’s eyes are enlarged, her neck elongated, her skin lightened, and waist slimmed. The students are riveted and begin to research on their own. One 7th-grade girl shared how many celebrities now have staff available 24 hours a day to photoshop their selfies. The class was appalled. “I knew that magazines photoshopped pictures, but I thought selfies were real,” one girl exclaimed.
What else isn’t real?
Consistently accessing information that has been embellished to fit the cyber world’s idea of beauty and success has the power to shape how our children assess themselves, understand where they fit among their peers, and determine whether or not they have value.
Comparing ourselves and our lives to the glamorous, photoshopped lives of celebrities has been part of the American culture since the film industry began, but in this age of filters, photo editing apps, and social media, our children are comparing themselves and their lives to the digitally enhanced versions of their friends and family. Social media users only post pictures and experiences that capture peak or dramatic moments. By comparison, one’s own life looks drab and boring. Young people who spend considerable time on social media often talk about suffering from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a phrase that captures the anxiety and depression I often see in my office.
Dave, 16, has spent the last month creating a Snapchat account for his fabricated “girlfriend” and developing an impressive streak. Now he can save face with his friends, when they see that he has a streak going with a girl.
Lisa, 15, has downloaded a new app that allows her to record party scenes on Snapchat so that she can appear to be out partying. She has social anxiety and spends most weekends watching Netflix in bed.
Gary, 14, picked a fight with a kid at school, so his friends could record it and post it to YouTube, where he could compete for views.
How do we start conversations with our kids about the social needs and issues lying beneath these behaviors? A good way to start: show them how they are being manipulated. At a time in their life when their world is expanding and they’re trying to figure out how everything works, pre-teens and teens react strongly to the idea of being manipulated. In my workshops, kids are eager to talk about how social media manipulates their understanding of reality. Parents can begin these conversations at home by finding images that intentionally mislead. Discuss how all of us can feel depressed and dissatisfied when we compare our lives to the impressive, curated moments everyone posts on social media.
Happy New Year!
We are continuing with posting excerpts from the new book we are working on, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). We have parent and teacher presentations on this topic, as well as student workshops. Contact us for more information!
And stay tuned for some exciting new interactive web content coming soon!
Information: Google It!
Today we hold in our hands more information than has ever been available to anyone since the beginning of time. There is always something new to learn and it’s available to all of us, all the time. Wikipedia with its vast storehouse of knowledge, free online courses at MIT, newspapers from around the world offering multiple perspectives and insights, chat rooms, and blogs, the potential for discovery and advancement feels limitless. No one wants to return to a time when information was reserved for the elite, and it took hours to research something that was old before you read it. Like the immigrant family, we can embrace the wonders of this new cyber world while also examining how it influences our children’s understanding of what is important and real. We can investigate this new world with them and help them develop strategies to filter out the fabrications from the truth.
Pre-internet, learning how to access information was an essential part of education. How to use a dictionary, how the Dewey Decimal system works, how to find the most updated research among a limited number of recognized journals—these were the keys to exploring the world of knowledge. Accessing information took effort and involved a trip to the library and hours in the stacks. No more. Now we can sit at home and locate what we need in minutes, even seconds.
Today we need new skills to face a different kind of challenge. Media outlets, bloggers, Twitter, YouTube offer a relentless barrage of information, news, gossip, insights, and videos. How do we make sense of it all? We need a way to figure out what matters and what is true.
Taylor Swift has a new boyfriend! There’s been an earthquake in China! You have a new snapchat from a friend and three texts from your mom! Look! No look here! Breaking news!
Information streams past us every minute of every day; each trending hashtag screams for attention with equal urgency. Notifications interrupt our focus and our ability to be where we are in time and space. Those bings and bells grab our attention and trigger a subtle but significant dopamine rush. Like Pavlov’s dogs, our brains are being shaped by the intermittent positive reinforcement we receive when we accept the interruption. We are all seduced by this call for our attention.
As parents and educators, we must begin to analyze how this constant state of anticipation and distraction keeps us from the rich experience of the present moment. Our children have a lot to contribute to this conversation. How do we figure out what is really important? What is worth our time? Because something is “trending,” does that mean it’s relevant or important to our lives? Does anything deserve our undivided attention? If so, what? And when? These are the questions we need to be discussing as a family.
As our children grow, they will begin to decide what is worth their time and attention. We can help make that decision a conscious one, based on what they value, and we can model that behavior. In Chapter Five we develop a family plan for internet use. For now, take stock of the price you and your children pay for being constantly plugged-in.
What kinds of activities or times of the day deserve to be distraction-free?
Here is excerpt #4 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.
Presenting in California about the effect of media technology on relationships, I led a workshop with the high school seniors. The school had just instituted a media policy that prohibited students from having cell phones during class or at lunch. The younger students seemed to be taking this in stride but the seniors, who were used to using their cell phones whenever they wanted, were outraged. As one 17-year-old put it, “What do they expect us to do? Just sit there and eat our lunch, staring at each other? What are we supposed to say, ‘Oh, hi, how are you?’!”
Yes, that would be good. The school understood that it was part of their job to prevent media technology (MT) from continuously buffering their students from face-to-face experiences. They understood that face-to-face communication fosters not only social skills and self-awareness, but it is instrumental in teaching children how to become compassionate participants in the world.
Later in this book, we create a family plan that promotes face-to-face communication. For now, let’s remind ourselves that social media and texting are here to stay and, when used ethically, can be powerful forces for good. We wouldn’t want to reject the cyber world even if we could. We want our children to enter this world with a strong sense of identity that is grounded in human values.
Laura is telling me about a Snapchat she sent the night before to a guy, a friend-of-a-friend. “I was laying in bed, I don’t know, I was half asleep or something, and we were just fooling around, kind of teasing each other. So I took this photo of me laying in bed in just my bra. I really wasn’t going to send it because I know how stupid that is, but then it just got sent. It’s crazy. Like I wasn’t even really thinking of sending it. So now I’m freaking that he could have taken a screen shot. I don’t think he would, but I bet he’ll tell my friend.”
Laura is not stupid; she is a teenager and very aware of the power she yields in attracting guys. She should be feeling this power and figuring out how she wants to use it, but not at night, and not on Snapchat.
Under no circumstances should children have a smartphone in their bedroom at night. They won’t get enough sleep. There is no teen or pre-teen that has the capacity to disconnect from their peers, who are all awake with smartphones. I know they use it for an alarm clock—really lame excuse. I know they will say they use it to wind down. That’s not true. Being a teenager is being hardwired to connect with your peers. They cannot resist. And we are naïve to think that they can.
Today, understanding the importance of thinking before you speak and pausing before you click has to be built into our parenting or we risk our children harming themselves or others before they even get out of middle school. We will talk more about helping children develop the muscle of self-discipline in Chapter Six. But, independent of the personal damage a snarky comment or thoughtless photo can have, it’s important that our children know that each of us has the power, through the words and images that we choose, to alter and shape our environment. Each of us has the power to bring toxicity to an environment or to create a space that reflects honesty and acceptance. Now more than ever, children need to learn that their words never disappear but contribute to a larger social contract that either supports the values we believe in or creates a jungle of predatory egos. Words matter, as do images, whether at the dinner table, between siblings, when you’re texting, or when you are hiding behind a tweet.
Throughout the book we will continue to look at the many ways MT affects how children learn to communicate. For now, it’s enough to begin thinking about how MT has changed the ways your family communicates for the better and for the worse. Ask yourself, “What do I want my child to understand about communication that will apply no matter what form of communication he is using? What are my values?”
As parents and educators, we always have had the responsibility of holding children accountable for how and what they communicate. Good manners, being polite, and civil discourse are essential to being part of the human family. In the internet age where anything you say can go viral, learning these qualities of ethical communication is essential. So think about it. Do you believe that what you say reflects the character of who you are? Even if it disappears in three seconds? Even if you are “just joking”? Even if “everyone talks like that”? Even if it’s only 140 characters? It’s important to discuss these questions with your children and to be clear that your values hold true, no matter the medium.
What do you want your child to understand about communication that will apply no matter what form of communication s/he is using? What are your values?
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?
Sharon: Love, love, love, love! Summer love, first love, true love, endless love. Love plays such an important part in how we think about romantic relationships and make decisions about intimacy, but we rarely, if ever, explore what that feeling really is or discuss how we know if it is real.
Chelsea: It’s so easy to dismiss teen infatuation, but stop to think about your first real crush—your body and mind endlessly preoccupied in daydreams, the intoxicating rush every time you saw that person, the giddy excitement when you finally talked or just made eye contact, the relentless obsessing about whether or not they really liked you. Your body floods with chemicals. Songs become full of meaning and importance--Ahhh, this must be what all those movies and songs are talking about. How easy is it to think that these overwhelming feelings are proof that you are in love? And really, who’s to say this isn’t love? Where do we draw the line between love, crush, lust, and infatuation?
Sharon: We start by first acknowledging the power and beauty of these feelings. But then we have to go further. We need to have conversations about the qualities that make a healthy, loving relationship, and give kids the information they need to sort out their feelings. Most teens say that their decision to have sex for the first time was based on “being in love.”
Chelsea: In our Sexual Health and Responsibility Curriculum, we give a homework assignment for the students to ask their parents, “When do you think it is OK for a person to have sex?” They write up what each parent says and then add a paragraph explaining what they believe.
Sharon: The most common response from parents is “when you’re in love.” That’s fine but it doesn’t go far enough.
Chelsea: From Cinderella to The Bachelor, from Twilight to One Direction, we are taught from a young age to base some of our most important life decisions on love--an all-encompassing, magical power that captivates our being, mind, body, and soul. But, who is exploring what love actually is? Who is helping teens navigate this new and exciting world of emotions?
Sharon: If we don’t do it, the media will, and does. In our absence, the media is defining love. And we see this influence in our discussions with students.
Chelsea: When students share this answer--when you’re in love—we always follow with: How do you know if you’re in love? How do you know if someone loves you? What does it mean to be in love?
Their answers tell us a lot about the culture we live in:
We have the students analyze different forms of popular media and look for messages about what constitutes “love” and a “good relationship.” I’m always excited by how much kids enjoy this part of the curriculum: teens are hungry to analyze and talk about the messages they are receiving every day.
Chelsea: These are some of our most dynamic conversations. Given the prevalence of relationship abuse among teens, it’s particularly important to help students see how our culture supports notions of love that can often lead to unhealthy and even abusive relationships.
Sharon: As parents and educators, we must add our voices to this conversation. We need to begin and sustain a dialogue about love and healthy relationships. “The Talk” is not nearly as simple as providing details on the biology of sexual intercourse. We must explore:
Sharon: That is such an important point. As a parent trying to survive the eye-rolling phase, you feel anxious, irritated, and ridiculous all at the same time. It’s exhausting to have to constantly remember that what you say matters, especially when you get absolutely no positive reinforcement.
Chelsea: And, of course, I’d report those totally embarrassing conversations to my friends, knowing that they were as eager to hear about these things as I was.
Sharon: We’re interested to hear what you think about this topic. Add your comments below and let us know what you think. Here are a few questions to get you started: