An Ode to my Father: Protect Your Kids' Mental Health in the ScreenAge

Oct 10, 2018

In August, my father, with whom I was very close, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Towards the end of his life, he’d lost the ability to eat, read and socialize -- the things he loved most in life. To see him in this condition was heartbreaking, yet, the weeks leading up to his death were oddly inspiring. The disease had taken his body, but I knew his legacy would carry on.

During the days I sat by his bedside, my three sisters would visit and we shared poignant, funny and sad moments from our childhood. Did we ever acknowledge his parenting skills or thank him for investing time in our future? No way! At least not then. As I watched the disease take his mind and body, I reflected on how much my life choices were shaped by the time he spent teaching us how to live.

My dad taught us about values. He didn’t care about keeping up with the Joneses, societal norms, or embarrassing us in the grocery store. He toted vitamins in his “Man Purse”. When others brought cookies, he’d insist on peanut butter and raisin balls. He washed out and reused plastic bags, years before Al Gore’s movie made it deriguer. All four girls had to mow the lawn, change tires, and shovel snow, despite our complaints. He even taught us how to hold one nostril down and blow snot out the other...okay, some lessons were better than others.

The Inconvenient Truth

What does my father’s passing have to do with parenting and digital media? Everything.

We’re the first generation raising digital natives using parenting models from our analog childhood. We need an update to our parenting “blueprint” for the ScreenAge.

Tech innovation isn’t new. It’s tempting to dismiss teen media obsession as harmless—akin to watching hours of prime-time TV and chatting on the phone for hours. But, don’t kid yourselves, digital is a whole new world and our families are an experiment in history.

What’s so different? When we were young, media consumption was social. We listened to music in the car, watched TV together, and went to movies with friends. Often, our parents were alongside us offering a mature lens through which to consider the news, entertainment, and information. For instance, without the option to tune out in the car with earbuds, I became accustomed to hearing the voices of National Public Radio and to this day I’m a sustaining member.

Today, we give our kids a filterless portal to the world, allowing content sponsors, friends and strangers to shape their thoughts.

Books and new studies released daily quantify the dangers of unbalanced media consumption on the adolescent brain. No matter the source, the conclusion is clear, technology is endangering our children's future and the family connections we cherish.

Growing rates of teen depression, anxiety, and isolation have driven teen suicide rates above homicide for the first time in 2012, the year smartphones use rose above 50% for teens. Neuroscience data curated over the last decade shows a clear correlation between the dopamine-inducing rewards of tech media and other substance or behavioral addictions. We won’t know the long-term effects of excessive digital media consumption for years to come.

Parenting Beyond Puberty

Just because tech overuse is pervasive, kids feel entitled to it and we didn’t create the problem, doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.

The “who me?” parenting epidemic plays out everywhere -- regardless of age, gender or geography. Digital media use is always a hot topic with parents, yet when I offer realistic, simple solutions, most parents prefer clinging to self-righteous indignation or denial. Who wants to start another fight with a teenager? And worse, the answer to the problem is elusive, overwhelming and different for all families. So, we pretend it’s not a problem.

How does a generation of parents raised on prime-time TV and landlines raise confident, resilient children in a digitally transformed world? How do we parent in a world shaped by ad-sponsored content filling our brains, curated profiles “reality” and external validation as a metric of self-worth?

Although most parents think teenagers are tuned out most of the time, they are absorbing everything we say and do. After puberty, kids start to see us as adults in our own right, and the absolutism of the parent-child hierarchy erodes. Kids notice the way we take on life’s challenges, interpret the world, engage in society and use our time. Well beyond high school, the way we live our lives leaves a blueprint on our kids’ brain, an instruction manual of sorts.

The Best Parental Control App is YOU

As parents, our job is to help our children grow into responsible adults and prepare them to realize their potential. We need to go back to the basics -- our family values -- to consciously set rules and limits to tech use and learn how to use it to enhance our lives.

We need to stop waiting for an app, the tech industry, institutions or the kids themselves to limit their digital media. We’re the ones with a prefrontal lobe. It’s time to stop pointing fingers, acknowledge the problem and be accountable for protecting our kids’ future.

So, what’s a parent to do? After years of working on this problem, here are the top three nuggets of wisdom.

  1. Create a Family Media Plan.
    We call it a screen contract, or a Parent-Child Agreement about screens. A written agreement that clarifies the times, locations, platforms, devices and the kind of content consumed will reduce anxiety and nagging.
  2. Get a monitoring device.
    The device should monitor all media accessed by WIFI or cellular data. Kids are often using devices away from home, so monitoring only WIFI will give you a skewed view of the impact. Also, the service should distinguish between entertainment media (YouTube, by Google) and productivity (Classroom, by Google.)
  3. Enforce limits.
    Your kids will certainly resist limits to digital media at first, so prepare for the complaints and stay the course. Keep yourself and your kids accountable—it’s worth the fight.

We’re at an inflection point in history. All of us -- millennials, parents, and grandparents alike -- need to take stock of our own use, go back to basics and update our parenting models and rise to the 21st-century parenting challenges. That’s what my dad would do.

Get Started Now: Download Our Free Guide to Helping Kids Balance Screen Time Without Taking Away Their Freedom

Marissa Verson Harrison is the founder of ScreenAge Bootcamp, a parent coaching platform for parents raising digital natives in the ScreenAge. 

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