January 9, 2017

Parenting Through the Digital Communication Crisis

Every since Ontario rolled out its new Sex Ed curriculum, there’s been a sense in the public eye that parents can have one of two responses to their kids’ curriculum: Agree with it or protest. Both after the fact once a curriculum is released. Silence or disagreement.

This is a very passive response when you consider who’s paying for our kids’ public (or private) education Us! And that it’s supposed to serve the public. Hence the name public school.  And yet we too often forget this fact. We imagine curriculum to be set in stone until it offends our moral core, and then we protest. Rarely.

It seems to me that we have come to a point where parents need schools to get on board teaching kids to talk to each other. Numerous studies have shown that kids spend at least 30 hours a week on screens. They wake up and fall asleep to Facebook and SnapChat and whatever new internet toy is the flavour du jour.

Sherry Turkle, who wrote Reclaiming Conversation, showed us that screen kids have indeed lost the art of conversation, and that kids’ empathy is lower today than it was a generation ago. She further said: “Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they ‘reveal too much.’ They would rather text than talk…. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone”

This is a communication crisis, and the big question is: Who’s going to teach our kids to communicate, and how will they do that?

Most parents I know have used one tool to reduce their kids’ screen time and get them out of virtual reality into actual reality: Authority. You’re not allowed on-screen on school nights. No screens at the table. No screens in the bedroom. Or the living room. Or before you’re 12.

I wish with all my heart that these prohibitions worked. It would be so simple if we could govern our children by executive fiat. But experience shows that when we forbid kids from doing something they really want to do, they figure out ways to get around us.

We know that in order to be effective, parental requirements pretty much have to follow the law of replacement: Not A but B. If I take something you like away from you, I have to replace it with something you will also like. Otherwise your motivation to comply is low and you’ll get around me. Today or eventually. It will also debit my street cred with you, and our relationship.

So what can replace screens? There’s only one thing more fun that screens and that’s what we call at Camp Arowhon WIN – Wireless Interpersonal Networking. Talking! Is this a lost art? In my house, there are always at least four devices on the island in the kitchen. More people = more devices. This is appalling device hygiene. If I were raising my kids now, I’d raise myself first, and do more communicating face-to-face and less on-line. Because it has become urgent to teach our kids to communicate face-to-face, and the most powerful way to teach is by modelling.

Second strategy: Initiate conversation (There’s that word again) with kids about their devices versus face-to-face contact. I would ask a whole bunch of questions and avoid delivering pronouncements. Because that’s how you facilitate communication. As a parent, I love resorting to pronouncements. It’s so much easier than listening, and so tempting to imagine I’m in charge. But it goes nowhere. Whereas if I ask a bunch of questions to try to understand their social and screen reality, we might find some common ground. What would happen if a family reflected aloud together about what each of us wants and needs in terms of social interaction? Do that and we will all learn something, and maybe find some common ground to negotiate on. Silver lining: They get to practice communicating without the device!

Third strategy: School! Knowing that kids aren’t getting enough practice in face-to-face communication, we should be challenging schools to teach communication skills, to work with kids to give them opportunities to practice communicating with each other, and to make this important at school. If parents and schools partner, work together to reclaim and rejuvenate the communication skills that kids have begun to lose thanks to their virtual reality, this may be the greatest gift we can give the children of 2017.

How can parents help kids through their digital jungle?
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