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If you had to pick the worst era to be a parent, what would it be? Keep in mind you have all of human history to choose from. My guess is that many of us would avoid eras of extreme famine, plague, or devastating warfare. With our hindsight, we may also choose to avoid times of natural disasters, epidemics, or man-made disasters. The more I think about this question, the more I think that parenting is difficult, no matter the era, culture, or time period. After all, eras of peace and prosperity may not necessarily prepare kids for the hardships they are likely to face at some point.
I often hear a lot of hand-wringing comments from parents about how difficult it is to parent these days. ‘These days’ usually means in an era of smart phones, accessible internet, and prevalent social media. The significance of social media and its effects on children and teens is so new that substantial research is only beginning to study it in depth. Is it damaging to kids and teens, who are just learning to navigate social cues, identity, and how to communicate and understand this world and its relationships? As someone who has chosen to have a minimal social media presence, I will admit that I was skeptical when I heard the stories of parents who struggled with their teens and social media. From my perspective, bullying, lying, friend drama, gossiping, dating, going out and ‘what have you,’ have been more or less the same for a few generations. We passed notes saying kind, funny, or unkind things about each other, we gossiped on the phone, met each other, and participated in many of the same activities as today’s teens. Being a teenager was difficult, but I always thought that was pretty typical, no matter the era. Especially in the 20th century to the present, with perhaps the exception of parenting when cars were first driven by teens, I tended to think parenting teens is hard, but that this era was no different. Just faster and with more efficient tools of both encouragement and shaming.
I recently attended a presentation by Collin Kartchner (you can see his TedX Talk here), entitled “#SavetheKids,” where he explained the ways that social media negatively affects children and how parents need to better supervise, train, protect, and regulate the use of social media and screen time for their children. To me, the role of a parent is to navigate paradox of protecting your children from harm and danger but also understanding your child well enough to know when your child can figure out how to cultivate the tools and skills to solve problems on their own. From that perspective, every era has a ‘new’ danger such as radio, leisure time, cars, television, drugs, the internet, social media, or smart phones. But that navigation between protection and allowing kids to fail and learn on their own remains: misunderstanding and understanding, distrust and trust, frustration, too much freedom, too much protection, too much responsibility, and not enough responsibility. Is social media and the advent of smart phone particularly pernicious for our youth, struggling to navigate the murky waters between a protected childhood and becoming a wise adult?
Kartchner articulates the ways that social media is particularly damaging to teens because of how much time teens spend on their screens. He believes that teens are checking out using screens instead of being forced to figure out awkward situations: for example: walking home and see a few people you sort of know – do you say hi? Wave? Ignore or pretend you don’t see them? make small talk? I feel as if I am still navigating these social situations – and do not always do it well, despite years of practice. What happens if you can just plug in your headphones and ignore all the awkward social situations? I still want to suggest I could have done that in my day by taking my Walkman with me everywhere, but I can see Kartchner’s point about the speed, volume and variety of distractions, comparisons, and capacity for positivity that is more often used to humiliate and demean in social media. Adults are, of course, susceptible to this as well, but teens are particularly vulnerable because most of them have yet to figure out their own identity, tastes, boundaries, strengths, and weaknesses. I have also been interested to read of the prevalence of Silicon Valley parents who do not allow their children and teens to use smart phones or social media.
Not surprisingly, Kartchner advocated for good parenting: more clear boundaries on technology use, more communication, and better modelling of healthy face-to-face relationships. Karchner recommends that parents use technology contracts to foster clear boundaries and consequences, hugging your children for 8 seconds, 8 times a day, not using your phone or tablet when at home, and not posting everything on social media.
After all, no matter the era, it seems good parenting is still easy to recognize.