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Parenting the Digitally Connected

Our pre-teen daughter pled her case like a seasoned attorney on why she must have a smartphone. Her argument ended with, “everyone has one.” We held out until 7th grade, when we as parents wanted to be able to get ahold of her after school and after practice. Despite our concerns that a smartphone introduces a child to an entire level of adult content through apps, websites, and YouTube, we realized that, at this point, all of her friends had phones. We couldn’t just protect her from it forever; Instead we needed to help her navigate it.

Those of us with children born between 1995 and 2012 are raising the first generation that will have no pre-internet memories. These children either have or will enter adolescence in the Age of the Smartphone. For them, technology is so tightly woven into the fabric of their daily experience that life without it seems impossible.

In fact, 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and of those, more than half say they are online almost constantly, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.  This isn’t happening by accident. (source)


Smartphone access nearly ubiquitous among teens, while having a home computer varies by income
Getting the attention of our youth is a highly profitable business. Google has grown to a $716 Billion dollar company, Facebook $522 Billion. Technology expert Tristan Harris explains in his sobering Ted Talk (source) that the underlying goal is to get —  and keep — our attention, because the company that can do this makes the most money.

With so much money at stake companies don’t just guess at how to get our attention, they hire people like Harris who worked with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Harris explains it like this – picture a company like Snapchat or YouTube. They have 100 very smart people in a controlroom with 100 dials constantly working with the desire to control the thoughts and emotions of a billion people. Add artificial intelligence to the mix and you can see why they are becoming so successful at getting and keeping that attention.

Harris, along with other silicon valley insiders, is starting to speak out because he is seeing the unintended consequences. He started a nonprofit called, “The Center for Humane Technology.” Its website opens up with the cautionary statement that, “our society is being hijacked by technology. What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.”

Harmful Side Effects of the Digital Age

We are only starting to become more aware the risks that these smartphones provide, risks beyond the adult content that our children can access. Dr. Jean Twenge, Doctor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has published some very eye-opening research about the iGen, a newer label she thought was fitting of this generation. It is the most digitally connected and smartphone-addicted generation. I just recently finished reading Twenge’s new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy– and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us. “iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades,” Twenge wrote in her book, pointing to suicides among this generation as reason for alarm.

Between 2012 and 2015 – in just three years – depression among boys rose 21% and depression among girls rose 50%. These upticks are reflected in suicide rates.

“After declining during the 1990s and stabilizing in the 2000s, the suicide rate for teens has risen again,” she wrote.  “46% more 15 to 19 year olds committed suicide in 2015 than in 2007, and two and a half times more 12 to 14 year olds killed themselves.” (Twenge, 110).

If we have spent time on social media and watched our kids interact with social media, how can we be totally surprised? Snapchat, the hugely popular social media platform among teens and young adults, turns conversations into streaks. A Snapchat streak is when you send direct snaps back and forth with a friend for several consecutive days. The longer you go without breaking the chain of communication, the longer your streak is. It is not uncommon for a teen going on vacation to give their Snapchat password to multiple friends so that they can keep their streaks going. Streaks become a measure of value and worth for the individual and their relationships. This is good news for Snapchat because it helps them win the battle to get and keep teens attention. The downside is streaks are far better at increasing anxiety and depression than developing meaningful relationship through conversation.

We have Instagram glorifying the picture-perfect self, redefining self worth. We have Facebook targeting our news feeds with news we agree with, only fragmenting and isolating us even more. We have Youtube, Facebook and Instagram now autoplaying the next video so that we don’t turn away, even go to sleep.

This race to keep out attention makes it harder to disconnect, increasing stress, anxiety and reducing sleep. And while it has made a few companies lots of money, it has placed our kids in a position of constant comparison, finding their value in the number of likes and streaks, and left constantly stressed and anxious by FOMO – the fear of missing out.

Faced with mounting evidence of the harm that unfettered access to social media can cause, there is a small but growing movement that is casting a more critical eye on the digital world.

In February, David Smith wrote in The Guardian about a gathering of Silicon Valley alumni and Washington lobbyists warning of the links between tech addiction and anxiety, obesity, and depression. Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff called for Facebook to be regulated like a cigarette company because of the addictive and harmful properties of social media.

What is a Parent to Do?

On the positive side, Twenge’s research points out that teens who play sports, are involved in religious activities, and hang out IRL (In Real Life) fair much better than those who don’t. This gives me some hope that we, as parents and as a society, can intervene in spite of the constant effort to get and keep our kids attention.

Tony Rienke, a senior writer for “Desiring God,” wrote a great piece titled, “Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age” about Twenge’s research along with some really practical advice for parents raising children in this digital age. You can read the full article HERE.

As a parent it can often feel like we are fighting a losing battle. The easiest thing to do would be to just give in to our kids’ demands and tell ourselves it’s not that big a deal. But our kids deserve our best, and we can’t simply surrender. So what can we do?

One of the most important things parents can do to protect their children from the risks of the digital world is to simply delay social media and smartphone use as long as possible.

A significant part of parenting and child development is the creation and formation of positive and constructive habits. Habits created early in the home are most likely to be how an adolescent will behave when they step off into independence. Likely the most quoted parenting proverb reflects this – Proverbs 22:6, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not depart from this.”

The easiest way to do this is find other things for them to do. Get them  involved in sports, theater, activities at church or with your community group – especially things that require them to interact with other peers and adults. If our kids are busy with something, they can’t have a phone in their hands. If they are interacting with other peers, they are developing valuable — and real — social skills.

Once they have a smartphone,  limit use as much as possible.

When my kids were younger I attached a device to our network to monitor and limit the time our kids were on the internet and social media. We used “Circle” by Disney. Apple has just announced that their new iOS 12 will have new features to limit interruptions and limit screen time. With these new features, you should be able to monitor and set daily limits, as well as turn select features off at bedtime. Let’s hope that this is a sign that headway is being made in the Silicon Valley and that the mental health of our children will be placed above making a dollar.

And consider using social media as a reward for a new positive behavior. For example, 30 minutes of walking on the treadmill = 30 minutes of digital media for the day (this works with adults as well). You could also make an effort to provide positive content for kids on their smartphone.

If they like being on their phone, use it for something constructive. My youngest was working on math, so we installed a number of games that she was not only using to help improve her math skills, but also having fun with. Our church also offers RightNow Media which provides free access to a huge library of shows and movies with positive, encouraging content for kids, teens and adults.

Have lots of open conversations with your kids as you give them more freedom with social media.

Very soon after our daughter had a smartphone, Snapchat was on the scene. The only thing I knew about Snapchat was people were using it to send nude pictures because the images would automatically be deleted once they had been viewed.

I wasn’t about to put that into the hands of my 13-year-old daughter, but the challenge was that Snapchat was the form of communication all her peers were using. So without Snapchat it wasn’t very easy for her to communicate with them. I decided to get the older nieces and nephews (upper classmen in High School and College age) together with my daughter and we all talked about Snapchat. I shared my concerns and they made the case that, while you can do those things, they choose not to. They know right from wrong, hang out with “good” kids, and they assured me that they choose not to hang out with people who do that.

In the end it came down to trust and responsibility. So I installed Snapchat on her phone. We work on trust and responsibility, but I still have access to her content. I check in on it periodically and we have filters and some controls at home.

I really don’t think we have to be afraid, but it is good to be aware. If you are only going to do one thing after reading this I would recommend installing iOS 12 on any apple device that you have and just start to look at how often you and your kids are using social media. We also have a Nintendo Switch, which has a really nice parent app that allows parents to monitor and get reports on their kids’ video game usage and set limits. Hopefully all companies will follow suit.

Finally, smartphones are not developing new sins – they simply amplify temptations and desires in a very researched and specific way. As parents, we can help our kids find purpose, meaning and self worth in spite of the greatest efforts to capture their attention. Personally I don’t know a lot of parents who believe they are doing an awesome job all the time – present company included – but we can always do better today than yesterday if we are willing to learn, grow and make changes. My wife and I have found a community of faith is a great place to raise a child. We can share with one another the struggles and the joys. We can ask questions and seek advice around shared values and beliefs. What are you doing to parent in the digital age? What could you work on improving?