How to Be a Good Parent in a Digitally Addicted World
Nine tips for raising confident and happy kids (without going crazy).
Posted June 29, 2017
I write and speak a lot on digital life, what it’s doing to us psychologically, spiritually, socially and as a society. What we can do to create a sense of wellbeing and freedom in the midst of what often feels like a world gone mad. Regardless of where I am or to whom I’m speaking however, the question I get most from my audiences is this: How do we raise healthy kids in this tech-addicted society, when we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid and we’re all in on this condoned addiction?
We the parents of today’s kids are true pioneers. We’re facing a situation that no other generation of parents has faced. People often say that previous parents had to deal with the television and telephone, and that every generation struggles with some new invention that changes everything, and that the Smartphone is really no different than anything that came before it. But in fact, where we are now, with the explosion of technology into every aspect of our lives and our children’s lives and our complete dependence upon it, is fundamentally different than any other time in history. Technology is a revolution and not like any other previous invention.
For one thing, the television and telephone didn’t come with us everywhere we went. We had to be in the world without them; the television and telephone were an addition to our lives, not the center of it. In addition, the telephone and television were not used for every aspect of our lives, work, social, information, planning etc., as the smartphone now is. So too, we didn’t defer our authority and agency to the television, telephone or any other invention, asking it to make decisions for us. We didn’t hand over our human skills, thinking and tasks to our televisions, rendering us helpless to its knowledge.
Furthermore, the makers of televisions and telephones were not employing neuroscientists and addiction specialists, as they are now, with the purpose of getting our kids (and all of us) hooked. Addiction is good for business and our kids are the targets of very smart and strategic plans, by very informed experts, to make them dependent, so they can’t or are too anxious to live without their devices. Never before have our kids had legal access to something so addictive as the substance that is technology. We’re giving our kids the equivalent of cocaine at a time in their lives when their front brains are not even developed, and they don’t have the skills, discernment or internal resources to be able to manage the drug of technology.
What we know from neuroscience is that using technology floods our brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine. Dopamine delivers pleasure and feeds the reward center in our brain. This sets up a compulsion loop; we want more of this pleasure and thus want to engage in the activity more. What happens next however, is that each time we have a thought of using or hear or feel a notification come in, our adrenal glands send out a burst of the stress hormone cortisol, which sets off the fight or flight response and we become anxious. We then opt to get back on our device to calm ourselves down. Those who are addicted are, therefore, living in a constant state of fight or flight and saturating their bodies with cortisol, which besides causing chronic stress has also been linked to lowered immune function, increased sugar levels and weight gain. It’s not a good thing.
Today’s moms and dads are stumbling down an untraveled path. More often than not, we don’t know what we’re doing. How could we know, we’re in new territory, raising addicts in an addicted world. Day by day we’re trying to understand how to maintain a loving connection with our children when the pull towards technology is so seemingly irresistible. We’re trying to figure out how to do our real job: to help them become happy, confident, grounded people in a society that feels increasingly anxious and untethered.
First, it is important that we honor our intention to help our children and families stay emotionally connected and intact. We have to be willing to work hard at this endeavor, to be good parents, because it profoundly matters. In some ways, our society depends upon it. When the family crumbles, all else crumbles. But also, because we want to deeply know our children, to spend time with them without a thousand other distractions, look into their eyes without the reflection of the screen inside their pupils. As families, we don’t want to simply brush past each other at the charging station in the kitchen.
Nine Tips for Good Parenting in a Digital World
1. Model It
Live the behavior you’re preaching. If you’re on your device constantly then your guidance is of no value, your rules are irrelevant. If you don’t walk the walk, your kids won’t either. Limit your time on your device, particularly when you’re with your kids and partner. Show your kids what it looks like to be engaged in activities that don’t involve technology. And absolutely do not leave your devices on or in sight during family meals.
2. Make a Plan/Set the Rules Ahead of Time
If you want to make God laugh, make plans. If you want to make God roll on the clouds with laughter, make plans with kids and smartphones. And yet, we still have to set the rules ahead of time with regard to our kids’ usage. It can be a good idea to do this together as a family. Write down specifically (and have everyone sign) what hours and under what circumstances device use (and what kind of use) will be acceptable. For example: first half hour after school: full use including social media. Next three hours: only computer use for homework, all social notifications off. Half-hour before bed all devices off. Whatever the rules you as parents decide on, make them specific, written down on paper, and hung up where they can be seen. When the conflict (and screaming) begins, you will be able to point to these established rules without any hesitation or confusion.
3. Create a Context
Don’t just tell your kids they can’t use their devices, explain to them the larger intentions behind your rules. For example, share that you don’t want them anxious all the time, and explain the effect that cortisol has on their growing body. Express that you actually want to know them and technology gets in the way of that happening. Tell them perhaps that you simply miss them, miss talking or taking walks with them. Whatever the larger and more loving intentions behind your rules, share them with your child. Create an open dialogue so the conversation can go deeper and become more connective, rather than simply arguing over screen time.
4. Ask Your Kids About Their Experience with Technology
Be curious about, specifically, how your kids experience their lives in the midst of technology. What it’s like for them to be kids in this kind of environment. You might ask how it feels to be with a friend who’s constantly texting and snapchatting other people when they’re with them. Or perhaps to be at a party when everyone is staring into their device and there’s no one there to really talk to. Ask what it’s like to have a boyfriend they text all day but feel incapable of talking to in real life. Whatever the issues that they’re pretending are okay, ask about them. Turn these difficult experiences into something they question rather than just assume is normal. Remember, there’s still a young person in there who’s probably feeling lonely, insecure, confused, anxious and overwhelmed by all of it. Invite that young person to the table and give them your full attention.
5. Get Your Kids into Tech-Free Activities
It’s increasingly important to expose your kids to activities that don’t require technology and also allow them to connect with people and themselves in a different way. We need to show them that they can still enjoy experiences (like sports, music, nature) without their devices, and that there really is life outside their smartphone.
6. Emphasize (with Gusto) the Importance of Hard Work and Time Invested
Kids are now growing up in an age of immediacy and ease. We value the quickest and easiest route to wherever we’re headed. The problem is that by accepting immediacy and ease, we’re depriving our children of the invaluable rewards of hard work and time invested. When our child lands on the top of the mountain by helicopter, he doesn’t reap the same confidence or inner strength as when he’s walked and struggled the path to the top. As a result, he ends up feeling like an imposter. Encourage your kids, again and again, the importance of putting in time and effort, for building a confident and strong inner self, so ultimately, they will know that they can rely on themselves.
7. Be Fierce
A lot of parents these days say that the horse is already out of the barn and it’s a losing battle this technology thing. When these parents give their kids the device, they claim they’re just giving him what he wants. This is not good parenting. As parents, we often need to take the harder path, the one our child doesn’t want, make the choice that creates more conflict, but ultimately, is better for our kids and our family. We need to be able to hold our ground when our child is ranting and raging. We need to dig deep, be fierce, stand our ground, and remember why we’re choosing this harder path, what’s really at stake.
8. Teach Your Kids Basic Meditation Techniques
Every child, no matter the age, can learn basic meditation practices. Try teaching your kids the following techniques: 1. Breathing. Notice and feel your breath. Don’t control it, just pay attention to it. Remember to breathe deeply, particularly when you’re anxious. 2. Body scan: bring your attention into each body part, one by one, and notice the sensations inside. As you go through, invite each part to relax. 3. Run a sense loop: bring your attention to each of your senses, one at a time. Notice what you are hearing, seeing, feeling in your body, smelling, tasting and the sixth sense, thinking. 4. Visualize an elevator ride from your head down into the bottom of your belly. Feel yourself getting calmer as you descend, floor by floor, into the stillness of your own presence. 5. Ask yourself if you’re actually here, paying attention to where you are. Notice/Feel what your own presence/here-ness feels like.
As a last resort, never underestimate the power of bribery, or more scientifically, cause and effect. For every minute, hour, afternoon or day your child stays off their device, consider gifting them with a non-tech related reward (it doesn't have to be big). The pleasure or pain they associate with their behavior will affect that behavior. Sometimes it might be the only thing that works and it’s not cheating to use the oldest trick in the book.
Parenting these days is not for the faint of heart. Although I don’t think there’s ever been a time that parenting was easy, the presence of these devices in our children’s lives makes now a particularly challenging and frustrating time to raise children. We’re living with addicts and they’re the very people we love the most and most want to be happy and well, which is exactly what addiction prevents.
We parents have to be kind to ourselves too. Sometimes we allow our child the device even when we know we shouldn’t, because we also know that it will make them stop whining or bitching (depending on their age) and because we desperately need peace and don’t have anything left in our own tank. And that’s okay. We also have needs and are not perfect. But what’s most important is not that we’re perfect, but that we keep trying. And, that we stay in touch with what really matters to us, and behave in a way that’s in alignment with our deeper priorities. Our children and our families are what’s at stake here, and it doesn’t get more important than that.
And finally, in this distracted and addicted world, there’s something we can do in every moment, and it may be the most important piece in this whole conundrum. When we’re with our kids, we can really be there, be with them, present. Our grounded, undistracted presence is the ultimate antidote to the anxious, untethered, disappeared world in which they are living. Land in the moment when you’re with your children. Give them the experience of what it’s like to be with someone who cares about them. Remember what they tell you about their lives and ask about it. Create continuity in a world that appears and disappears faster than memory can grasp. Be the light in the darkness, the sanity in the insanity. Love means presence and in that, we, blessedly, have complete control.