Originally published in the Times Villager, March 2015
“I wish my mom would get a clue. She doesn’t know me or what I do online everyday. She tries to be relevant, but let’s face it-she’s not. It’s embarrassing.”
“I wish my dad would spend more time with me. Real time doing stuff like we used to, not just watching TV together.”
These words, written by area youth on the rekenekt graffiti wall, could have been written by my kids, or yours. The culture screams that teens prefer the Internet to their parents. Blogs, websites, and irrelevant news feeds reinforce the lie that teens do not want parents involved in their everyday lives.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. Statistics show 78% of teens believe their parents are the most influential people in their life. Seventy-six percent of teenagers say they would like to spend more time with their parents. That is good news for parents and families. It means that we can successfully build relationships with our teens in spite of the culture. One way we can do that is to unplug from technology and refocus our efforts on real time relationships.
We recently purchased a little cottage. My teens watched in horror as my first official act was to remove the satellite dish and television antenna. “This is an unplugged zone,” I declared confidently. Being on the river in the woods, the cell reception is not great and there is no Wi-Fi available. Proud of myself for making such a courageous parenting move on behalf of my family’s relational wellness, I began to waver when my own urgent client conference call kept dropping.
Vodaphone, in their digital parenting guide, suggests the omnipresence of digital communication interrupts “present parenting” and engagement in the moment. Emails pinging in from afar on a device distract parents from talking to children who are right in front of them. My own kids would readily nod in agreement. Our real time relationships suffer when technology becomes more important than the people in our lives.
We can’t ignore the impact of technology on our critical relationships. A Yahoo online poll reports the average US family owns 12 tech devices. Overlapping family usage adds up to 43 collective hours per 24-hour day.
Seventy-eight percent of all teens are online daily. Seventy-four percent of those teens access the internet through a handheld device. Thirty-seven percent of teens in America own a smart phone. Eighty-one percent of teens use social media. Of those teens, 94% use Facebook daily. While these statistics may seem unbelievable, one thing we know for sure, technology is not going away. Like anything else the world throws our way, parents must determine how technology impacts the family.
I watch an interesting tech detox phenomenon unfold every time we arrive at the cottage. After unpacking, there is a period of technological mourning. In a zombie-like state, my teens walk around, handheld devices held high overhead, looking for reception. Frantically, they stand in the street, reach out over the water, or perch on the upper roof deck desperate for any kind of connection. Finally resigned, after a half hour of being completely severed from contact with the outside world, the phones get tossed, the boys rummage for snacks, and the girls curl up on the couch to talk. In an instant, they relinquish technology in exchange for real relationships. And as I ponder how I am going to send my submission deadlines, I breathe a sigh and smile. Amazed, I watched my teens actually look forward to time away from the hectic media distractions that consume their thoughts. One started a puzzle, another went outside to skip stones, and after commenting on how peaceful and quiet it was, my oldest son drifted off to sleep in a cozy recliner.
Retreating to a cottage may not always be an option, but parents can create an unplugged environment at home. So, mom and dad, toss your own handheld device aside, set down the remote, and reconnect with your teens.
Take Five Action Steps
Unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your teen may be one of the most important battles you choose to fight as you equip your son or daughter to engage in real relationships. Consider these five action steps to help you unplug.
- What’s in it for you? How do you use technology yourself? Do you rely on the TV to babysit? Do you allow gaming to keep the peace? Do you default to Netflix to distract you from stress and real-life issues? Honestly assess how you use technology. If you are willing to look at your own technology usage and unplug, your teens will be more likely to follow your lead.
- Get a clue. Most parents do not fully understand technology. If you can’t beat them, join them. Be willing to enter their world. Employ your teens to teach you about the technology they use. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest will make you relatable to your teen. Learn, understand and apply internet safety guidelines. Be aware of your teen’s internet usage and monitor content.
- Limit tech time. Do you know how much tech time you and your teens actually use? Try keeping a media usage log for one week. It may surprise you and prompt you to set some healthy limits. Healthy media boundaries might be two hours per day after school, no media after 9:00, or no texting while others are in the room. Talk with your teens about reasonable tech rules and follow through.
- Talk to your children about how technology is affecting their relationships. Eye contact is a lost art, cyber bullying has replaced intentional kindness, and looking cooler online has normally honest kids ‘stretching’ the truth. Some good old fashioned character training can help your teens form healthy real-time relationships that will be more fulfilling and longer lasting than those they create online.
- Unplug as a family. Bored teens gravitate to mindless social media. The old adage ‘the devil makes usage of idle hands’ has never been more true. Put down the phones and offer up alternative choices to keep them engaged in real relationships. Sit down as a family to discuss fun options like game night, family basketball, mini-golf, a trip to the YMCA, etc. Let different family members choose and lead their favorite activities with only one rule-no media allowed!
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