I was recently sitting in the waiting area at a doctor’s office. There were about six or seven other people sitting there. At one point I looked up from my phone to see that every single other person was also on their phone, totally immersed in what they were doing. This is the world we live in. For teens, it is the only world they have ever known.
As a therapist I have worked with many teenagers and their parents over the years. It is completely normal in this day and age to experience a teenager sitting in my office, using their phone, and not looking up while I talk to their parents. I am fine with them using their phones in this kind of situation, but I wasn’t always. It took me awhile to be more understanding.
I remember the first time I was in a therapy session talking to a mother and this teenage boy was scrolling through his phone seemingly unengaged in the conversation. There were feelings that came up for me in that moment.
I felt disrespected
The emotion was not a choice for me, but simply an automatic response to the situation. I have been conditioned to feel this because I grew up in a time where it was considered disrespectful to not pay attention to an adult who was talking to you.
Technology is changing faster than ever before and kids are growing up in a world that we old folks never imagined when we were younger.
In the example I gave, just because a teenager is using his phone does not mean he is being disrespectful at all. Once I started speaking directly to him, he was polite and cooperative and willing to be engaged. Those feelings of being disrespected are echoes of a bygone era and are my own experience completely unrelated to the other person’s intentions.
Digital Immigrants vs. Digital Natives
Dr. Ofer Zur from the Zur institute has written about the difference between digital immigrants and digital natives. There is no exact date and no one falls completely in one category or the other, but my opinion is that if you are over the age of 30 it is likely you are a digital immigrant.
Digital natives are growing up in a world where they can meet new people, develop relationships, and feel connected to the world all without leaving their bedroom.
This can lead to parents being concerned about their child. Things were quite a bit different when I was a kid.
When I was a kid…
- We used to talk on a phone that was connected to a wall. And by the way, it was in the kitchen so if I wanted any privacy I would have to stretch the cord out as far as possible and whisper.
- We could only carry about 10 songs in our pocket at a time. It used to take forever to make one mixed tape. I remember waiting hours for my favorite song to come on the radio and then push record right at the perfect time.
- We could only watch whatever was on TV at that exact time. Can you imagine? We also walked through giant stores called video stores to rent tapes we could put in our VCR at home.
- Photos could only be taken with a camera and then you had to take the film somewhere to have the pictures printed before you could even see them.
- Google used to be called a set of encyclopedias. If you wanted to find the answer to something you had to read it in a book, look at a map, ask somebody else, or just use your own brain.
Kids growing up in today’s reality literally have the world at their fingertips. Parents who complain that the child is all alone in his/her room for long periods of time are not realizing that young people have many more ways to build relationships and connect with others than ever before.
Sitting in their room, teens might be connecting with many family members and friends at the same time by text, Facebook, twitter, snapchat, instagram, youtube, tumblr, vine, kik, and many others. This isn’t necessarily any less healthy than the way older generations connect with others.
Some parents have good intentions, but bad strategies.
Unfortunately, a lot of parents nag, complain and threaten their teen. I’m sure they have good intentions because they want their child to be happy and healthy, but this most often leads to an even worse relationship. These kinds of tactics often lead to the teens spending even more time with fun activities online and less wanting to interact with the adults in their life. So what can parents do?
5 Ways to be More Understanding with Teens and Technology
- Ask your teen to help you figure out how to use a new device, app, or site that you are trying out.
- Be understanding that times are different now. Just because it feels foreign to you, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Using technology and social media are the norm.
- Make suggestions for apps, games, or sites that you think they might like.
- Avoid reacting to your feelings in the heat of the moment. If you have strong emotions in response to something your child is doing, take a step back, cool off, and think about how to approach the situation in a rational way that will lead to a better relationship.
- Sit down and play a game with them for awhile.
The more you are able to show your child that you are understanding and respect them, the more they will listen when you do have guidance for them. It is fine to set boundaries, but remember that your child will be able to accept these boundaries more easily if they feel like you are on their side. If you are giving them the message that all technology is bad all the time, they are going to learn to tune you out and not listen to you.
In any situation, always remember that the relationship is the priority!
Shane Birkel is a marriage and family therapist in Dover, New Hampshire. He specializes in helping people get along and improve their relationships.