Parenting Adolescents in Today's Computer World

Parenting is twice as complicated with 2 worlds (offline and online) to manage.

Posted Jan 21, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

What would the author of Alice’s adventures, Lewis Carroll, have to say about parenting during the technological age in which we live?  

My guess would be: “I told you so.”  

That writer might suggest that today the “looking glass” is the electronic screen, the “rabbit hole” is the computer, and “wonderland” is the Internet where both parent and adolescent spend so much of their daily lives. 

And now fabrications and reversals are parts of everyone’s everyday experience. “What is real, and what is make-believe?” “What is actually important, and what is simply sensational?” “What information can you trust, and what truly matters?”

Like the bewildered Alice, we may sometimes wonder: in this technological age, has significant human perspective been altered or even lost?

What brought this topic to mind was 2018 polling information that a Deseret News reporter shared with me: the “American Family Survey,” conducted with Brigham Young University. 

“We asked parents to pick the four most important issues facing teens. The results were:

1.   Overuse of tech – 53 percent of parents agreed,

2.   Bullying – 45 percent,

3.   Mental Health Issues – 36 percent,

4.   Family breakdown/divorce – 35 percent.

So, despite the raging opioid epidemic, most parents are concerned about tech. This seems to represent a shift from a few decades ago when parents were most concerned about ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll.’” 

Today, I think most parents of adolescents suffer from a degree of Internet Anxiety– fearing this ever-present influence about which they are largely ignorant and over which they have very little control. Consider three ways in which their family influence may have been eroded. 

·     It used to be that parents might delay adolescent exposures to adult information based on perceived readiness: “We’ll talk with you about this when you are a few years older.” Not anymore. With the Internet, now the young person is only a click away from whatever they want to know. 

·     It used to be that parents could feel secure in knowing their adolescent was safely at home. Not anymore. With the Internet, now the young person can be securely in their room traveling online to who-knows-where, learning and doing who-knows-what, in unknown company.

·     It used to be that parents could expect homework could be done in the undistracted quiet of the bedroom. Not anymore. With the Internet, now the young person can forsake engagement with boring school assignments for escape into the Internet—the greatest circus of human entertainment ever invented.  

So: rather than feel helpless and frightened about their adolescent’s Internet life, parents might consider an antidote to some of that anxiety: they can take action. There are some things they might want to say and do about developing goals, suggesting guidelines, and discussing responsible evaluation. Take these one at a time.

GOALS

They can educate for competence so the young person has sufficient exposure and practice to develop up-to-date online skills to make their social, educational, and occupational way in a more technological world. (“This is how you navigate, interact, and find out information.”) 

They can supervise for Safety so the young person is mindful of online risks that come with Internet life and know what precautions to take to avoid online harm. (“This is what privacy you lose, warning signs to beware, and dangers that can occur.”)  

They can bargain for Balance so the young person doesn’t sacrifice offline development and engagement to online entertainment and escape. (“This is a healthy mix we want you to maintain: for every hour online, we expect comparable productive time spent offline.”) 

GUIDELINES

Over the recent years, here are a few of the guidelines I have heard parents provide.

     On a daily basis we will have screen-free communication time together in the family.

·     Routinely when we tell about our days, we will be not only talking about offline experience, but our online experience as well.

·     When we discover something worth learning about using the Internet we will share that with each other.

·     No sleeping with your smart phone; you need to get uninterrupted rest.

·     Sign up for no sites on which we are password protected out.

·     Observe the future-time rule: do not post anything you believe you might regret five years from now.

·     Don’t message or text when you are upset or angry.

·     Report anytime you feel threatened or are dangerously entangled online.

·     Having a smart phone comes with the obligation to answer anytime we call or text.

·     We will intermittently check on your phone and Internet activity to ensure your safety and responsibility.   

EVALUATION

Another possible parental job might be educating their adolescent in how to intelligently evaluate this readily available universe of online information.  Consider three filtering questions to help when accessing and assessing this endless trove of information, evaluating what the content may have to offer. There is the Purpose Question (and the matter of Agenda), the Trust Question (and the matter of Truth), and the Application Question (and the matter of Use.) In all three cases, the message to their adolescent is: “You must be the judge.”   

The Purpose Question is: “Why is this data being posted?” All data on the Internet is posted for a purpose, hung out there like bait to hook visitor interest.  So whatever site you are viewing, ask yourself: What is the agenda? Is it to entertain me, to educate me, to locate me, to motivate me, to profit off me, to exploit me in some way? Ask yourself: “Why would someone want me to be interested in this?”

The Trust Question is: “Should this information be treated as valid?” Is it worth considering, crediting, and given convincing value? How can you tell if the reporting, examples, opinions, testimonies, promises, pictures, offers or claims are to be believed and trusted? You don’t want to admit into your core of working knowledge what is mistaken, misleading, or false—like short cuts, quick fixes, illusions, outrageous claims, and magic solutions. You don’t want to be led to believe and behave like fantasy is reality. Ask yourself: “On balance, is this too unlikely, too simple, too seductive, too sensational, or too good to be true?” 

The Application Question is: “Should I act on, interact with, or put this information to personal use?” Assuming the agenda seems legitimate and the content valid, do you want to place personal welfare on it by utilizing whatever the information is supposed to be good for, be it for education, guidance, membership, or for purchase? Because the outcome is always to some degree a gamble, encourage the young person to take Predictive Responsibility by asking themselves what could possibly go wrong if they used this information, and what plan do they have in mind should this eventuality occur. Ask yourself: “Does the use justify the risk?” 

Accept it. Many parents grew up in a simpler single world when offline life experience was all there was. Today, part of the parental challenge is parenting in two worlds, not one—factoring in their responsibility for the teenager’s online experience as well. 

The Internet is a marvelous revolutionary and evolutionary technological change that is here to stay and will continue to shape our future in unforeseen ways. Like any creative human advance, it opens up all kinds of hitherto unimagined possibilities—many for the good, some for the bad. So parents must help the young person try to maximize the first, and moderate the second. 

Today's parents are not misperceiving: raising a teenager in today’s electronic wonderland parents  is simply much more complicated than it used to be. 

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Allure of Physical Beauty