Charting the Course for Family Tech Use
Steering the ship, turbulent teenage seas, and the Postman Pledge
A few days ago I had the opportunity to converse with a bright young woman about her first year of university studies. Reflecting back, she was struck by how the majority of students simply seemed “messed up”. Every other female student sports scratched lines on wrists and has some sort of psychological diagnosis supplied with pills, “resting bitch face” is the expression of choice, partying packed with drinking and a variety of legal and illegal drugs is standard, everyone keeps looking for their vape sticks, and Tinder, Hinge, or some other trendy hook up app feeds the remaining bodily appetites. Almost without exception their faces are in a continuous loop from iphone to laptop screen, submerged into the oblivion of a parallel digital world. As someone who had grown up without an iphone until the age of 16, she found the experience isolating, knowing that at any moment conversations could (and would) get interrupted by yet another alert to return attention to the digital world. iphones and social media are clearly not the only culprit for this “messed up” existence, but they do serve as a potent catalyst to alienation from reality.
As I reflected on our conversation, wondering how so many young people seemed souls lost in a sea of the unreal, these lines from William Henley’s poem Invictus came to mind:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Which led me to ask, how can we guide our children and teenagers to captain their souls so that they can remain invictus - unconquerable - by digital unreality? While some may choose the Amish or neo-Luddite route, others may not want to shed technology completely. Regardless, one way we can most certainly benefit from imitating the Amish, is in making specific decisions about what technologies we will and will not use, rather than allowing the decision to be made for us by “progress”.1
What follows are some guiding principles, developed over years of experience with our own children, countless conversations with parents, as well as insights shared by teenagers themselves, to help you chart a course for your family’s tech use.
Steering the ship and growing bone marrow
It is commonplace to hear children from the age of eight through the teen years describe the frustration of trying to get the attention of their multitasking parents. Now these same children are insecure about having each other’s attention.
— Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
If your children are still frolicking through the wonderful (and exhausting) babyhood and toddler years, you may assume that thinking about technology use is still years away. Yet, parental device habits are relevant as soon as a baby enters the family. Many of our initial interactions may seem trivial — smiling and chatting, changing a diaper, feeding with an airplane spoon, naming objects in their surroundings, clapping at new achievements etc. — but serve to ingrain in your child the precedence of being human in the real world. When babies grow into toddlers, the time we as parents invest in reading books together, telling stories, play-acting, exploring nature etc. further cements the value of face-to-face relationships and immediate surroundings. None of these interactions will likely be explicitly remembered, but each one of them serves to grow the bone marrow of reality.
We know that the time we spend caring for children, doing the most basic things for them, lays down a crucial substrate. On this ground, children become confident that they are loved no matter what. And we who care for them become confirmed in our capacity to love and care. — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
So what happens when digital devices fracture our interactions with our young children? Psychologist Eva Unternäher, lead investigator of a Swiss Swipe-Study on preschool screen exposure, points out that parents who are so busy with their mobile phones that they do not even notice that their child is asking a question, or who do not make eye contact because their focus is trained on the latest text, send the message to their child that their device is more important. This creates “inward-looking difficulties” in young infants, and parallels the ‘still face’ paradigm, where a parent plays and interacts with the baby but then suddenly stops showing emotion and stares blankly (at their screen). This triggers discomfort and distress in babies and small children.
The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.
— D.W. Winnicott
Campaigns are already underway in the US to draw attention to parental phubbing, i.e. ignoring people because of their smartphones, and the effect on child well-being. The sad part of the story is that the need for attention subsides, not because the child has reached its goal of receiving attention, but because they have given up. Findings from Asia show that these children then exhibit increased problematic digital media consumption themselves and also have lower self-esteem, more emotional difficulties and poorer relationships with their parents.
If you are to steer the ship, first examine your own tech use, and how it may be affecting your children. You as the parent are the one who sets the tone.
Excessive screen use does not start with teens and TikTok; for a growing number of children it starts in the crib. While reading a Swiss newspaper earlier this year, I came across the headline: The disruptive effect of digital media on child development.2 The article discusses various behavioral and developmental problems exhibited by children who are regularly stationed in front of mobile phones. More and more young children are treated in the psychiatry clinic for issues spawned from their digital media use: very small children not wanting to eat unless there is a phone on the table; infants who will only fall asleep after watching an hour or two of videos in their crib; children exhibiting autistic traits, not talking or avoiding eye contact, because of excessive digital media consumption. These examples are quite drastic and the overall research indicates that, “young children who spend a lot of time in front of the screen are more likely to show behavioral problems such as social withdrawal, sadness or anxiety, but also aggressiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Reduced language development can also be the result.” Consequently, the researchers warn that screen time before the age of two “should be taboo” due to brain development.