Stop Texting, Enjoy Life: Your Kids Are Watching You
By: Devorah Heitner, Raising Digital Natives
Kids learn their values and behaviors from watching us. Are you texting when your kids are talking to you? Are you checking your emails while they are around? Are you "allowed" to answer your phone during dinner (when they aren’t) and blaming it on work?
The pressures of today’s constantly connected world seems to put us in a perpetual state of multitasking. I feel the same pressure in my own day to day life, so I get it. But what watching us multi-task and “double screen” say to our kids? Can we set a better example? If you can commit to the discipline of not checking your phone constantly, it will send a powerful message to your kids. You are in control—not controlled by your devices. The boundaries you set, and adhere to, will not only free you, but they will also set an example for your kids.
In other words, if you put away your cell phone during important family time—they will too. When you show your kids that family time is important, they will come to value it more too. Many of us are checking email hundreds of times a day. Productivity experts and family experts agree—this doesn’t help your productivity or your relationships. If you text at dinner, don’t expect your tween or teen to leave their phone somewhere else or turn it off.
Modeling a balanced use of your own devices could be the most important message you can send your child about the role of technology in your family. Try going to the park or playground tech-free. Find a family "safe word" that is funny but serves as a good reminder. One family I know, everyone is allowed to nicely call one another out on being "screen monsters," and we remind each other to "be here now."
We’ve all seen families and friends eating lunch while checking their smartphones. It’s a scene we’ve all witnessed in restaurants, and it always looks worse on others, doesn’t it? Either on your own, or with your spouse/partner, take a mental inventory of your own family’s time where each of you is on his or her own screen. You have to be really mindful and objective, as much of the time it is not planned this way. But as you look back on the past week or any typical week, where do you find members of the family in their own corners or even right next to one another, absorbed in their individual digital worlds?
One mother, Susan Maushart, unplugged her entire family. She and her three teenage children lived “unplugged” for 6 months. While the kids were initially resentful, she found that the siblings grew closer to one another (and not purely because they were upset with their mother!) and that old talents and hobbies resurfaced without video games and texting to eat up all of their free time. While the full unplugging is a radical step, getting more mindful of how family time can be eroded by the pull of networked connections can help your family stay connected. She wrote a book about the experience that I recommend: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale.
It may not be fun for you, but ask your children what their least favorite tech habit of yours is. You may already know your own weaknesses, but it can be really helpful to get their view on it. What do you do when a family member wants to talk with you? Do you close your laptop or put down your phone? If you watched a video of yourself, would it surprise you? Would you like what you see? I struggle with this as a full-time consultant and speaker too, as the boundaries around work are a little different than they might be with a 9-5 job. Even so, many parents with 9-5 jobs have expectations of constant accessibility, too—and they find that accessibility to be just as much of a management challenge as anyone else.
The kids in my workshops are on to their parents. When I ask what problems in their lives are exacerbated by technology , every single kid from 4th to 7th grader answers the same way. They all complain about the most important people in their lives being inaccessible because of technology. As a parent, it kills me to hear this.
When parents are glued to smartphones or engrossed in email, the children in my workshops tell me they feel like they’re not needed. And they designed an app to fix it! One workshop group came up with an app called, “Stop Texting, Enjoy Life” for their parents. Here’s how it works. The app is voice-activated and when triggered by a child’s voice, will actually shut down mom or dad’s phone.
They were clever enough to design the app with a voice recognition feature , so random kids can’t come up to adults on the street and turn off their phones. As parents, we have put timers on our children’s use of technology and these clever kids are letting us know they want the same consideration in return. They want to feel important to us, and not just pushed aside by the demands of today’s world and our greater accessibility to everyone
What can you do to change habits around this kind of media use? Begin by looking for opportunities for shared media use and unplugged time. Choose one small area at a time where you can change habits. For me it is resisting the urge to check email thirty times a day. Enlist a friend or your spouse to do a 1-week habit-change challenge. Or start the equivalent of a “swear jar” and put a dollar into the jar each time you check your phone during scheduled unplugged time. Have fun with the challenge, and acknowledge the difficulties to your kids in becoming more mindful about everyday habits of digital connection. You’re setting great example for them!
About the Author: An experienced speaker, workshop leader, and consultant, Dr. Heitner founded Raising Digital Natives to serve as a resource for schools and organizations wishing to cultivate a culture of responsible digital citizenship. She has spoken at schools across the United States and beyond as well conferences and meetings including SXSWedu, TEDx Naperville and the National Association of Independent Schools. Her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in the Digital Age will be published by Bibliomotion in fall 2016. Her curriculum:Connecting Wisely: Social Emotional Insights and Skills for Plugged in Kids is available from Youthlight Press. Dr. Heitner has a Ph.D. in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul University, Street Level Youth Media, and Northwestern University. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native, too.