Do you remember the old Star Trek television shows and those futuristic gadgets they used to communicate with each other? It seemed so far-fetched at the time to talk through holograms and TV screens, but today it’s our reality and deeply ingrained in our culture, especially among teenagers. We live in a world with unparalleled means to communicate—Facebook, iPads, smart phones, texting, Twitter, SnapChat, e-mail, YouTube, websites, blogs, RSS feeds, Skype—we can be in constant contact with anyone, anywhere, 24/7! But it also means our faces are glued to glowing screens most of the day.
Less face-time and more screen-time leads to us getting worse at “connecting” with other people. Young people today seem to rely more on text-messaging, instant messaging, micro-blogging, and their own web pages to communicate. I’ve even watched teens sit in the same room and send one another text messages without ever stopping to talk to one another face to face. And I’ve observed the effect on teens who are “dumping” all this information on social media, but really listening to each other less. Author Stephen Marche, in his article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” put it perfectly:
“Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
Another issue of real concern is the safety factor. As technologies evolve at a rapid rate, teens are diversifying: dividing their attention among a selection of new and existing apps and sites that let them write, share, chat, and meet new friends. This makes it harder for concerned parents to monitor their teens’ digital interactions; however, parents would be wise to obtain at least a cursory knowledge of the types of the latest social media platforms and apps—particularly the so-called “secret apps” such as Snapchat and Whisper. Whisper, as the name implies, is a social confessional app with “whispers” that are often sexual in nature and include other disturbing topics such as suicide and substance abuse.
While these concerns are real and put the responsibility on parents to exercise extra diligence, I’m not advocating that we all become Luddites. I don’t hate technology. I own a smart phone. I text, I email, and I use Facebook. These are not bad devices. We don’t need to throw our iPhones into a bonfire and start using carrier pigeons to communicate. The danger, however, becomes when our kids (or ourselves for that matter) become so immersed in the blinking lights and bleeping sounds of our devices that we neglect face-to-face conversation or spending time with other people. I’ve found an easy formula; more screen time and less people time equals stunted growth for us and our teens. It’s really that simple. In this over-stimulated culture of ours, we have got to teach our teens competency in connecting; how to interact and communicate with the world around them in a way that provides them with community and acceptance. In a culture that nurtures self-expression, relying on these screens to communicate creates a terrible habit of conversation that is shallow and one that encourages self-expression stretched to unimaginable limits. If we don’t help our teens unplug a bit, we’ll all lose these three things: depth of conversation, decorum and strong relationships.
Depth of Conversation
Is talking to your teen like pulling teeth? Do you have to strain and struggle to get complete sentences out of your son or daughter? It could be that we’re too used to communicating with screens than we are with real people. You see, the dialogue through a computer or smart phone is either one-way or short and brief. Facebook is beneficial for talking to long lost friends, chatting with people, or telling your parents what you did for the summer. But too often, a Facebook page transforms into a one-direction, narcissistic scream for attention. Look at what I did! Listen to what I am saying! Someone pay attention to me! It turns into a world revolving around the teen.
If you feel your child is slipping into this mode of connecting and communicating, pull them away from the screen and get them talking! Model for them the importance of deep conversations. When they talk to you, drop what you’re doing (if you can), turn to face them, look them in the eye, and verbally acknowledge them. Show them what it looks like to engage in face-to-face time. And expect the same thing of them.
I read a story recently about two young boys who had given up trying to engage their dad in conversation. He was always on the computer or playing a video game. When they would pipe up and say “Hey, dad, can I show you something?” the dad would often not even look up and would often respond with, “Give me five minutes” and go back to looking at his screen. Those kids are looking for connections and communication and they will go to any lengths to get it. So model deep conversations around your home, and engage your kids in meaningful communication.
The false security of a computer screen allows many teens to say and post things they would never do out in the real world. They use coarse language, post sexually explicit photos or messages, or taunt and bully other people. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube—they all offer some level of anonymity and kids can’t see the consequences of their behaviors online like they would in real life. It’s also changing the way kids resolve conflicts. Instead of meeting someone in person to settle disputes, they are taking to the screens to wage battles. The digital wars that are raised and fought through text messages and websites may not be bloody, but they can still destroy lives.
If your teen says or posts something disrespectful, hurtful, or inappropriate on the web or through their phone, don’t explode. Ask them, is this an image that you want everyone to see? Will this hurt or help your relationships? Explain the damage that can happen when posting too much information or acting a certain way online. Dads—don’t let your sons break up with girlfriends on the phone or by text. Make them talk in person. Moms—if your daughter is fighting with someone, encourage her to meet that person and resolve it verbally. Stripped of the safety of the screen, teens will learn and develop their sense of decorum, respect, and conflict resolution.
Depth of Relationships
We are community-oriented creatures. We crave relationships with other people. And the only way to build a relationship with another person is to spend time and talk with them. Not email. Not text. Talk.
But many teens are missing out. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, about three-quarters of teens use their phones to text, sending an average of sixty messages a day. Fewer than 40% of teens use their phone to actually call somebody. So how do we get our kids off the phone and engaging?
Start a once a week “Plugged-in” night. Set up a box near the living room, and every member has to drop their phone off into the box before they come in. Then start a fire, play a game, talk about the day or events in the world. If once a week is too much, consider putting aside the phone and electronics once a month, and show your kids they can function without them. Also, spend time with your kids away from television, computers or phones. Take them out to breakfast, talk and share a meal together. Don’t run to the extreme and ban Facebook, texts, text or Twitter. Instead, give your kids options. Invite their friends to go camping with you. Plan a group date for the movies. Go out for coffee and ask questions. Show your teen that deep relationships aren’t formed by typing on a screen.
We’ve gotten to be good communicators. We are experts at throwing words out there. But with all the talking, this generation is missing out on connecting. Teaching competency in connecting doesn’t mean throwing electronics or technologies out the window. But it does involve turning off the phone or computer and saying, “Let’s talk.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.