‘Tis the season to be pestered by your child for this year’s coolest digital accoutrements. Fa la la la la la la laaah! All the shiniest new gadgets, consoles, games and wearables are on many young people’s wish lists as numerous nations around the world live through a locked-down, physically distant, but digitally connected Christmas.
The pressure for parents to feel that they are ‘keeping up with the iPhoneses’ is real. Often there is a disconnect between the physical giving of the digital gift and the unreasonable expectation that young people come pre-loaded with the skills to be perfectly responsible and healthy users of technology who can avoid all online risks and attention hijacks.
2020 has finally helped shift some of the outdated, simplistic views of screen-based media use and pulled back the curtain to many of the positive digital practices of young people in their online spaces. Equally, docu-dramas like The Social Dilemma have highlighted (albeit, in my opinion, hysterically and lop-sidedly!) increasing concerns over how unputdownable technology is – for all of us.
The disconnect between the status symbolism of gifting tech items and ongoing concerns over digital distraction and dependence, are confounded by young people’s seemingly innate technical skills. The ability to make a meme, reconfigure a modem or even hack a parental control system should not be confused with the social-emotional skills required to effectively and responsibly manage online behaviors and habits – from dodging cyberbullying to knowing when to put the game controller down and go to bed.
Empowering young people to develop the competencies required to thrive in a digital world requires some serious, proactive attention – rather than simply unboxing and hoping for the best! Young people learn social-emotional skills and self-regulation through modeling, firm but fair boundaries and most importantly, relationships.
They are not mini-adults with the same brain architecture as someone over 30. They don’t learn well from one finger-wagging guest speaker at an assembly. They can’t magically apply the ‘good choices’ they know they *should* when under stress or peer pressure. They won’t naturally choose hours of math homework over connecting with friends on social media (and be honest you probably didn’t either).
They do need us to listen to them, really listen (without always jumping to advice giving). They do need us to trust them and presume positive intent (not jump to conclusions or catastrophize worst case scenarios). They do need us to put our own phones down or laptops away and walk the digitally balanced talk!
So, before the digital genie comes out of the box this Christmas consider carving out some time to develop your own tailored family technology agreement, to have meaningful discussions (not give monologues) on what role devices and screens have in your family. Parents and co-parents, blended families and grandparents ALL have a role in this discussion. It’s an opportunity to listen and learn and reframe the ‘stuff that really matters’, beyond the conflicts that arise around screens.
There’s a wealth of support out thereto walk you through this. Pro-tip, it’s much more about connection and communication that it is about the actual devices and there is no silver bullet or single Net Nanny type apps that will do your job as a parent! Investing in these conversations helps to foster the exact same skills we’re worried kids aren’t learning: empathy, perspective taking, negotiation and iteration!
What is missing from many of the agreements that you’ll find online are the micro-habits and behavioral nudges that can help enhance your digital wellbeing. Nudges are small hacks and habits that help move behaviors towards a goal. When thinking about nudges in terms of family tech agreements many are about making it just that bit harder to dive into the digital rabbit hole and are aimed to help you stay focused and doing what matters (for you, your tax return perhaps, and for them, their assignments and revision).
You might like to include simple suggestions like logging out of social media accounts (so that you have to fiddle around with passwords to log back in) during the week of exams or when assignments are due. You could all agree to try moving apps on the home screen around each month so that monotonous checking and scrolling isn’t so easy (where did I hide that TikTok app?). These provide opportunities to notice how often and how mindless our checking habits might have become.
Devices are like sand; without clear guidelines they end up in every crack and crevice. One minute you don’t even have your work email on your phone, the next you’re replying to Reddit threads on the dunny. Like with sand, creating a virtual sandpit around devices helps avoid technology creeping into every corner of your home and time.
Cal Newport talks about this as a Phone Foyer – creating a home base for devices so they are anchored to a space, removing the temptation to become distracted, or simply do the little things that break your time into confetti. It’s another example of a ‘nudge’ – a soft poke to remind you to redirect your energy towards your goals and values.
Want to go and check your phone for how many likes you got on that photo of your kid with a bubble-beard in the bath? Go right ahead, but in the process of standing up and walking to the virtual sandpit let’s hope you check yourself, before you get there and your kids catch you checking your phone. Again.