I've recently had occasion to spend time with groups of teens and parents talking about spirituality in the smartphone age--how we set good boundaries and habits, how we bring our healthiest selves to that endeavor, etc. I started out asking each group, "What do you wish your [parents/teens] understood about your feelings about technology and social media?" I had this idea that I'd write one blog post from each perspective. But as these conversations went on, I realized that was the wrong approach, and unnecessary. Because generally, teens and adults would say the same thing to one another. Here are a few themes:
Both think the other spends too much time online. Parents are worried that their teens are interacting more and more through a screen and not building healthy habits for face-to-face interaction. But youth are just as likely to say that their parents are on Facebook too much, or can't get through a meal without checking email or responding to a text.
Both were worried about the tech world being a "burden" for the other. You can see why parents would worry about how all this screen time is affecting young minds (and sleep cycles). But youth talked about this too. One young person said, "At least for us, a lot of our screen time is social. But it seems like my parents are always working and having to check in."
Both see the value in tech-free times. One of my conversations was with a church youth group, and it was the youth themselves (in consult with their advisors) who came up with the tech-free policy for their meetings: they turn in their phones at the beginning and get them back at the end. They also listed many of the same "sacred spaces" where phones and tablets should be off-limits as their parents did: the dinner table, whenever an important conversation is taking place, etc. One parent who heard the teens' comments about this quipped, "If you value tech-free time so much, why do you holler when we tell you to turn it off or take away your devices?" Touche. Then again, complaining about parental boundaries is a time-honored task of the teenager. What's more, young people don't like being interrupted in a task any more than we do. Take a phone out of their hand mid-text and they will complain, just like we testily respond "Just a minute!!!" when someone demands our attention while on our phones.
Both admitted an impact on attention span. This expresses itself a little differently in different generations---like teens before them, today's youth have multiple "inputs" going at once, much more than adults do---but both teens and adults feel the effects of "monkey mind."
Both understand the difference between the curated persona and the fullness of life. The youth talked about their parents "bragging about us on Facebook," and in turn the parents lamented the litany of selfies their kids took in order to get the right one. In a sense, though, we all understand the rules of the game: what we put online, and see online about others, is not the complete story. Then again, both groups said there's a difference between knowing that intellectually and feeling it in our gut. It still hurts when other people seem to be living their lives better than you are.
Parents worry how this affects a child's emerging sense of self and self-worth--rightly so, I think. But while this is just a hunch, I wonder whether young people will actually be better at handling this as adults than we currently are, because they've had the time and the mental elasticity to learn how.
I know there's a difference between what people say and what people do. We all know the "right answer" to this stuff--whether we take it to heart in the heat of the moment, when the text is calling to us, or when we want that shot of affirmation from Instagram, is another matter. I also know that kids who attend a church youth group aren't necessarily a random sampling of teens. But I found it comforting that the puzzles and struggles of the digital age are pretty universal across generations. Ultimately it highlighted the need for good communication. I firmly believe that teens will be much more likely to embrace norms that they're a part of negotiating. Here's a set of good resources to start that work, from the Note to Self podcast.
And for our part, we adults can do a better job of modeling healthy behavior. It reminds me of a parenting class I took years ago. We were asked to write down the attributes we wanted our children to have when they were grown up---maturity, generosity, compassion, etc. After sharing our lists with one another, the facilitator said, "Great--that's your list to work on. You want them to have a spirit of service? Cultivate that in yourself."
If you want your children to have a healthy relationship with technology--and have healthy relationships through technology--we need to start with ourselves.
Photo by Lauren Randolph for On Being.