Being a parent in a digital world

Note: multiple friends have asked me what I use for screen time monitoring with kids/teenagers, so I am writing about it here.

Being a parent is a great and challenging experience. This is especially challenging in the digital world, as kids and young teens want to interact with their friends online and in social media. Smartphones are pervasive, and schools, camps, and other organizations that your kids are part of assume that they will be available online and in social networks. It’s not a requirement, but increasingly it feels like it is.

I have two children between the ages of 13 and 15. Both of them have phones and computers, and I’ve tried most of the solutions out there to balance the right level of control with access.

Why monitor?

You might say “why should I monitor what my kids are doing online? I trust my kids and want them to learn to make their own decisions.”

In my opinion, this view is naive.  It doesn’t acknowledge the way the world has changed.

in 2015, only 10-11% of teenagers had smartphones. Social media was used on computers, but not nearly as pervasively as it is now. In the past five years, the rate of anxiety, depression, and suicide has increased significantly.

Social media companies spend millions of dollars trying to make their apps “sticky” and increase usage. We are all basically test subjects in an uncontrolled social experiment.

My opinion is that we should acknowledge the benefits of modern technology, but also acknowledge that there is a downside/cost with every technology. Social is the way that modern kids communicate, but unrestricted access and unlimited usage of it has many potential risks.

And I’m not just talking about the risk of grooming/predators (and this is a real risk). Other potential risks:

1. Bullying: Teenagers are mean (and have been forever): The difference now is that bully is always with you, and can spread the humiliation much further. By limiting the amount of time your child is on social media, you provide a natural break where they can be away from the online world.
Also, your child might be the bully–kids who would never say or do mean stuff to their friends faces will be cruel online or in group chats if the rest of their friends are ganging up on someone.

2. Reputation/damage to future college or job prospects: Kids are immature. If I had access to social media when I was 14, I shudder to think about things I would have said/done. Fortunately, there isn’t a permanent record of that stuff. Employers check the social history of potential hires–there are many stories of people being not hired or cancelled for something that they posted when they were a teenager.

3. Phone addiction: just walking past a group of teenage “phone zombies” is enough evidence for this one. I don’t know if “addiction” meets the medical qualifications, but if teenagers would rather be looking at their phones than interacting with family, it is a problem.

4. Passive consumption vs. creativity: Despite the explosion of new channels for creativity, only 3% of teenagers actively create content–social channels like TikTok lead to passive consumption. I want my kids to have skills and be creators, not consumers.

5. Anxiety/FOMO: “Dad, I need to be on _______________ or I can never talk to my friends” is a common argument I get from my kids. I don’t buy it–there are numerous ways that you can talk to friends–they all have phone number, text/imessage, etc. If a friend won’t talk to you if you don’t have Snapchat, they aren’t a very good friend. Anecdotally I have seen the “withdrawals” that kids get if they can’t check their phone–In my opinion, this is bad for their mental health and can lead to increased anxiety and distract from learning, reading, and creating.

That’s why my approach is to limit the social channels that my young teen children have access to, monitor them for risky behavior patterns, and limit the amount of time per day that they can spend on them.

In future posts I will detail some of the tools that we use to monitor and limit online activity for our kids.

Other helpful resources

The following books/videos have influenced my thinking on this topic:

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
This book by social scientist Sherry Turkle shows how technology has changed the way that kids communicate vs. 10-20 years ago. I think the inability to have in-person conversations will have a major impact on future adult’s ability to get and maintain employment, and that kids who have more in-person interaction will have a huge advantage. Also, watch her TED talks.

Childhood 2.0 documentary
This video is produced by Bark, one of my favorite monitoring tools, and does a balanced job of showing the impact of social media on kids and teens.

The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
This documentary shows how social media is designed to create addictive behavior and manipulate people and the associated impact on mental health

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