By Jessica Garrett
Social media, the internet, iPhones, smart phones, laptops, gaming consoles — it’s perfectly clear that the world is headed in a direction totally dependent on electronics and online communication. So what’s a parent or grandparent to do when it feels like children don’t want to communicate in person? Or worse yet, they feel like they can’t? How can we break down those pixilated barriers?
Educate yourself. The feeling that we can’t talk anymore is very real, and can be a total bummer. But the world continues to move forward, and in this case forward means fast and fast means electronic. The best place you can come from when trying to handle a teen or child who is buried in a phone or computer is an educated place. Learn what sites and electronics they’re using and how they work. The benefit of electronics and apps being so commonplace now is that most are more user friendly than you’d think. What’s the easiest way to learn your way around an unfamiliar device or website? Do exactly what kids do- play with it! Take it upon yourself to learn the jargon, too. Knowing words like unfriend and hashtag will not only help you know what the kids are up to, it’ll also aid in decoding the language of the times. Got questions about more specific words you worry might implicate sex, drug use, or violence? Urbandictionary.com will help, but be forewarned: things can get graphic.
Engage. Now that you know more about what the young ones are up to online, what’s the appeal? In the case of social media, really basic stuff. Staying connected and finding like-minded folks. Are there dangers to sites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine? Of course. Privacy can be invaded, you can say something that hurts someone or get hurt yourself, you can embarrass yourself with photos or statements. And nothing is ever really deleted from the internet. But, and this is a big “but,” most of the above is true about the real world, too. So if you aren’t on any social networking sites but the children in your life are, it might be worth starting to engage by creating a profile.
Articulate your Concerns…and what you like about it. A blanket statement of “I don’t like how much you’re on Twitter” will probably buy you one thing- a big fat eye roll. You may be better off being specific, or even asking for help and framing it as your own problem. “Aiden, I just joined Facebook and I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out how to stop my work acquaintance from bothering me” may lead to a discussion on who to hide, or unfriend altogether. Explain that social media and electronics, though forever ingrained in society, are still a privilege, and have to be used responsibly. Social media can offer a great way for young people to find their identity during a time when that can seem so difficult, so have patience. If you’re worried your child may be feeling alone, certain websites may be able to help them find friends, just as social media initially intended.
Find Teachable Moments. The Internet is quickly becoming the go-to place to get news. That means all these things that are seemingly tearing us apart are also bringing us closer than ever as a world. And though it’s easy to mistake commentary for news, the internet also offers the blogs and Twitter accounts of people who are living through these news stories as they happen, from tornadoes in the Midwest to democracy in the Middle East, which can be really effective in opening a child’s eyes to the struggles and triumphs of our fellow world citizens.
Set Ground Rules. Just like anything else, our new world involves a lot of responsibility. Even though we need to accept that this electronic renaissance is here to stay, that doesn’t mean it replaces human interaction. Encourage kids to do all the good stuff that new technology was meant for: keeping in touch, research, hobbies, broadening our world view, etc. But it’s not a free-for-all. When you get your driver’s license, sure, you can drive, but if you break the rules, there will still be consequences. Figure out what works for your family, both in terms of content and time spent on electronics. Maybe it’s a ratio (for every hour of homework, that’s a half hour of free electronic time) or a compromise on privacy (you don’t have to be Facebook friends with Mom, but she gets to check your page). Every family is different.
At the end of the day, this is our new world. It’s got a lot of flashing lights and it buzzes and vibrates and demands a lot of its people. We need to plug in and be a part of it. But there are also times when we need to ignore it. Maybe that means two hours of tech free time on a weeknight, or a camping trip over the summer. It may not be what the kids want (it may not even be what you want) but when they look back in 20 years at their memories, the only Instagram that will really matter is the one that lives behind our eyelids as we dream and remember.
By Jessica Garrett, Health Educator, Guest Blogger for Jewish Community Services, Baltimore MD
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