Consider this. What happens at the complex intersection where hormonal changes that occur during adolescence meet a device that offers escape, entertainment, humour, community, and transports you on a bullet train anywhere around the world – destinations, extreme sports, pornography, chatrooms, games – and allows you to potentially join a larger social network of friends that will accept you (hopefully) without judging you at face value. Pretty enticing, right? In those years in which you have to navigate the formation of your identity with friends, parents, teachers and yourself, there’s an escape tunnel. Down in the labyrinth, it also offers additional routes in which you can pretend to be someone else, and there’s a few channels in which you can just quietly watch or hide, and at the end of the tunnel there’s the promise that maybe you’ll find something promising – love, popularity, excitement, inclusion, safety. Maybe even money in some cases.
For years, there have been wonderful distractions, experiences or products which offer us a break from our reality – alcohol, drugs, (fast) food, gambling, sex. And the reality is that smart devices take us on a wonderful journey elsewhere. So, is there a problem with that? It depends on your age of course, adults can choose whatever they wish, but when it comes to teens and tweens, they have less exposure and experience to be able to discern whether these distractions are healthy – are they being served information which doesn’t serve them well, with respect to how they relate to each other, to family or to society. In simple terms, it’s fun, yes, but does it help them in the long run?
When we truly understand the nature of how we operate, that it’s easier to turn away from our boredom or difficulties with escapism it allows to understand why we use our devices so frequently. Of course, they are used for business or education, our research, connecting with people around the world, medical support, and all those wonderful things, but if we are honest, largely they are used to view the world, its wackiness and wonderfulness, to feel secure and safe in some way, and to escape – perhaps the current situation, or something difficult in our lives.
For kids, we need to ask ourselves if these are the tunnels we want them to explore so early. Are they better up on dry land, where we can see them, interact with them, and teach them some of our important values so they can both manage and then excel. But that takes our time, away from our heavy workload, or relationships, our own much-needed free time. We find that our kids are so quiet (and seemingly happy?) when they’re online. But we need to accept that may not be true. Many can be distracted and amused, yes, but they may also be speaking with strangers (we see a frightening number admit to this in our school’s program), feeling excluded, bullied or anxious, or having mixed feelings about something that troubled them (or excited them too), or sharing content that is harmful or could damage their reputation down the line. Most importantly, what they are consuming is, over time, contributing to their view of the world. If an algorithm serves us anti-Donald Trump rhetoric, for example, does it support our view and do we loathe him more? Quite often, yes. The programming of the information we are served online is shaping our perspective of our world. So what we consume is important.
What we therefore propose is to bring this reality to the kitchen table, to explain how the devices, games and social media work (generating income at all costs) and that both the information they are served, or the people they speak to, needs to be thought through – this is critical thinking. Over the last decade, as kids became more adept at technology than we were, we found ourselves lacking about the technology, flailing behind – our sons and daughters know more than we do, navigating the online world at a frightening pace and with ease and confidence – they do not know the world, or the adults that pursue opportunity or break laws, whatever the cost. That is our critical thinking. We need to meet half way. At the table kitchen table we share this with them, debate it, and agree to a new set of rules, ones which all of us can see (on the fridge perhaps), and then we try our very best as a family to work together towards them. Patience is required. Change takes time. But staying the course – with some compassion about how we all got here – should deliver the rewards.