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‘Screenagers!’ How to get your teen to disconnect online and reconnect to life

Three teenage girls lying down ignoring each other while they use smartphones“No Facebook now, finish your homework … ! ”

I realise how stupid this comment is, before I even finish the sentence.

“But mum, I am getting some help with geometry from Ethan on Facebook messenger.”

The reality is that our teens are constantly hooked up to an electronic universe often via multiple devices. Texting, Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook messaging go on incessantly in their lives. Even though during school time, the use of mobile phones may be forbidden, much of their work is conducted on laptops and tablets. The digital world envelops them.

They are incredibly sophisticated and tech savvy. Technology is so natural for our Gen-Y and Z children and as seamlessly a part of them as a limb. The interminable nature of teenage internet activity and the apparent waste of time drives us parents insane. It interfere with their school work and their personal development and means so much less family time together. As parents we may feel powerless and out of control. We also get so frustrated with their permanent logged-in state.

So do we fight it or surrender to the reality of this new world order?

They have grown up in a highly sophisticated media and computer environment with digital communication and social networks and have therefore developed very different communication styles from our generation. This technology provides them with a constant connection to their friends and to a universe of information.

Although we think we were so different at that age,the need for constant communication is a timeless adolescent issue. What did we do when we were teens? We spoke for hours and hours on the phone. Don’t you remember driving your parents crazy as you sat curled up with the phone attached to your ear for three hours? Teens throughout the ages thrive on being connected to their peer group, keeping up to date with what’s happening and being able to communicate regularly with mates. They also have a real fear of missing out and instant messaging ensures they feel connected and up to date.

It’s not all bad news. The generation to which our teens belong has never known life before the digital era. Because of it, they can indeed multitask and make decisions faster. They are accustomed to receiving and processing vast amounts of information swiftly. They have access to a world of knowledge which still requires them to search and summarise and develop skills relevant to the world they are living in. It is remarkable how adept our kids are at navigating such a wide variety of incoming stimuli.

SUPPORT: Chat to other parents of teenagers in our forum

Although all this connectivity provides a medium for not feeling alone or missing out, it is extremely important for young people to develop some tolerance for being alone.

Being able to tolerate aloneness (different from loneliness) is an important life skill to feel comfortable with themselves in the absence of numerous distractions. And remaining permanently logged in and connected is fraught with detrimental consequences our teenagers most certainly require periods of time to disconnect from the virtual world and reconnect with the real world.

Moreover, there are very real dangers lurking in cyberspace that parents and teens need to be aware of – cyberbullies, pornography and online predators to name a few.

In attempting to disconnect our youngsters from their permanently logged in state, it is best we be realistic and choose our battles well. Establishing firm ground rules should be age-dependent and consistent. Preteens and young teens require much more supervision than older children. Younger adolescents cannot set their own boundaries, so we need to be clear, consistent and spell out for example how many hours each day can be spent on facebook, video games or internet. Younger teens and tweens require our presence and guidance whilst negotiating this world. For example if you are happy for your 13-year-old to join Facebook, ensure at the outset, and intermittently, you sit with her and provide boundaries, security settings and guidance. Encourage internet use in open places in your home.

We would do well to understand and accept that this ‘plugged-in’ state is the nature of their world and although some of us may be a step or two behind our kids, we too are a part of this digital age. We can embrace the positive nature of it whilst still establishing boundaries. Ensuring that all family members disconnect and experience some electronic-free time is vital. This could be dinner time or any other period in the day to catch up and check in with each other. Once we are all unplugged, we can engage in real face time where active listening skills and eye contact are called into play.

With regard to surveillance, be honest with your children if you are going to use parental controls. Website blockers may be useful, although kids can get round some of them. Many of the computer security packages that keep your PC free of viruses have a simple online safety section that allows you to block websites that contain violence, gambling, weapons, cults and pornography. Let your kids know that these measures are in place. Stalking them or setting up these controls behind their backs, encourages a family culture of dishonesty. I have personally never used blockers or intense surveillance but understand the reasons why many parents chose to.

Although the technological advancements and the world of multiple devices, numerous apps and constant connection is here to stay, as parents we most certainly can ensure we are engaging with our teens in active communication , truly listening to them when they want to talk and providing an environment that is nurturing, secure and warm.

Yes, our Y and Z-gens are internet-based and high-tech but they still require our reality-based and high-touch parenting.

Image credit: antonioguillem/123RF Stock Photo

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