On Feb. 8, I was invited to participate in a program for parents and their teen and pre-teen children at East Woods School in Oyster Bay. The focus was on raising awareness about the struggles and danger our youth face today in connection with improper and inappropriate use of social media, cyber-bullying and gaming addictions. The program included a viewing of the documentary film Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, and featured a live panel discussion afterwards. I was one of four panelists.
Before seeing the film, I read some anonymous reviews written by adults and kids. Many of them sounded like this one: “Spot on Fantastic!” A few others were more critical. For example, a 16-year-old wrote, “It focuses on the downsides of electronics and never positives.” A 12-year-old wrote, “The message of Screenagers is that kids just exist for their parents to boss around and children’s opinions don’t matter.”
The film was well done and did spend a good deal of time presenting the risks in the digital world. The strength of the film was the interaction it stimulated, a positive step toward reducing isolation and building community.
The audience of kids and adults was asked, “Are you more fearful after having seen the film?” Easily more than half the parents raised their hands. A 13-year-old boy, when asked what he thought, said that he hadn’t realized how the overuse of digital technology impacts the brain and learning.
I shared the insight that, “Most parents are immigrants to the digital world, while our kids are digital natives.” A mom responded by saying that she never thought about it that way, like actual immigration and the misunderstandings it can create between the generations. Another parent spoke to the analogy by citing the challenge of trying to negotiate traditional and modern values with her kids, and how to preserve their cultural heritage without preventing them from adapting and growing.
“The digital world is an evolving landscape that parents have to learn to navigate,” said Kathleen Clark-Pearson, M.D., in a report she co-authored for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The digital world is a great place for kids to connect socially, share photos with family, learn and have fun. As “immigrants” to this high-tech arena, parents would do well to immerse themselves in the digital world of their children and learn as much as possible in order to build common ground for communicating effectively with their kids.
If a child’s job is to explore and a parent’s job is to protect, becoming more knowledgeable and proficient in digital technology is essential for parents to help their children navigate the many risks and dangers of the digital world including online grooming, cyber-bullying, sexting, gaming addiction and sleep deprivation. Of course, adults are also susceptible to risks and, we have to be careful not to fall victim to “distracted parent syndrome,” when we use our own hand-held devices, for example.
I shared the story of observing a mother and her pre-teen son sitting across from one another at a local diner. She did not get off of her mobile phone the entire time. The boy did not have such a device. He just fidgeted most of the meal. It was so sad. What was he learning from her example?
Social media and digital technology are here to stay. The benefits far outweigh the dangers, but with the average kid spending 6.5 hours a day looking at screens, it’s imperative that parents learn the ins and outs, growing with their kids as we all get accustomed to this new world.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org to find out more.