Put down the device. I tried to say it, but I couldn’t make a sound.
Put. It. Down.
Over my children’s messy heads, I saw Minecraft, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube. I heard the Minecraft noises of pigs snorting and pickaxes striking, and the high-pitched laughter of a teenage YouTuber advising on “merch.”
Then I woke from my nightmare. But did I really? I’m awake, and the screens are still here.
I was the mom who’d feared tech. I raised my children eating kale, camping, hiking, biking, swimming, running, and exploring bugs and all that’s wild—so I especially worried about screens stealing my kids from their creative endeavors.
But as my kids have grown, and I’ve seen the world transform, I’m now looking at teen tech outside of my black-and-white nightmare lens.
Especially during times of social distancing, electronics can provide relief from isolation—an opportunity for socializing, learning, play, and a feeling of control in a tumultuous world. So I’ve had to consider connecting with my kids on their own techie turf.
Pandemic or not, screens are here to stay. “Young people are living their social lives in ways that cannot be disconnected from the online world. And what they need to thrive is to see their parents modeling good values, etiquette, and digital behaviors,” says Jordan Shapiro, Ph.D., nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The New Childhood.
Just as grownups model mature behavior in other aspects of our lives, says Shapiro, we have to do that in the digital world, too. “Each time you connect with your teen digitally, you’re showing them what it looks like when the tools are used in alignment with your values. The more opportunities you can find to be the good example, the healthier their relationship to the digital world will become.”
To me, these healthy relationships—both with screens and each other—are more essential than ever during a global pandemic.
9 Positive Ways to Use Technology with Teens:
Here are some ways I’m using tech with my teens for family bonding and making online life a positive for our family.
Tap into their expertise.
During lockdown, my middle son rated online meeting platforms, then helped me organize the writing workshops I teach online. This engaged him in my career and helped me appreciate his skills. My daughter rearranged my phone apps and screen for me. And my oldest son cleaned and optimized my laptop. They felt helpful—because they really were—and I felt grateful.
Plan online parties with distant relatives.
One evening we ate ice cream sundaes with overseas relatives on Google Hangouts. Another time we ordered pizza. Getting online with my kids to socialize was a welcome diversion and made for fun discussions about aunts, uncles, grandparents, and pets—including tales of a break-dancing uncle and general silliness.
Surrender to Snapchat—and laugh.
Sometimes you have to meet your kids where they are, and that’s often Snapchat. Not only can we send silly snaps to kids, but my husband has made funny videos with my daughter and allowed her to turn him into a rabbit and a dog.
Encourage physical activity through apps.
My oldest son can track his cycling and running on Strava and compete with others without making actual contact. He’s also able to record and share cool rides with my husband and me, including fun photos and epic distances and inclines, boosting our connection and health at the same time.
My teen boys show me their new architectural dreams in Minecraft, and one talks of becoming an architect with a sustainable approach. We feel even more positive connection when my husband or I play Minecraft with our kids.
Share photos and videos on a family group text.
Whether we are in lockdown or not, sharing our photos of sunsets, silly faces, and pet poses gives us a common family language. Amid all the zaniness of pandemic times, we’re also grounding ourselves in the everyday with photographic investigations of flowers, birds, dramatic weather shifts, and other easily overlooked details in the world around us.
When my teens aren’t talkative, I’m surprised how much they express via text. Texting gives them the safe distance they need at times to tell me their real feelings or for me to tell them mine.
Conversing about what we see on social media has been ongoing at our house. When we see something that feels off, we express our (sometimes differing) opinions. In this election season and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, my kids have asked good questions and engaged with us, partly because of social media.
My oldest son recently took a break from social media. “I want to focus on more important things,” he said. My middle kid muted several group chats. Seeing them make good choices, on their own, not only demonstrates their empowerment but leads to great conversations.
I’ll always choose real interactions with my kids, the birds out back, and the sky over any screen. But I have found ways to wake up from the nightmare of tech and instead dream of finding creative ways to connect with the next generation, hopefully becoming the mom my kids need to thrive in the 21st century.