No, You’re Not an Awful Parent

I had a very familiar conversation with a parent the other day.

Mary is the mother of a 14-year-old boy, and she was nearly distraught as she spoke to me about the frustration and confusion she and her husband felt as they tried to find a solution to control her son’s technology obsession.

She described her boy as “lovely and bright” and said he loved to program. However, she really couldn’t trust him to stay off his computer and smartphone when he should be doing other things, like studying.

We really didn’t notice that he is spending more and more time on his computer playing video games and watching videos” she said. “He started spending less and less time studying and more and more time playing.

Then she blamed herself because her son couldn’t control himself with his devices. She wondered if she could have done something differently as a parent.

She was angry, frustrated, confused, and exhausted.

I knew exactly how she felt and had a lot of empathy for her situation. I understood because not only do I have three children of my own, but also because I’ve heard her story so many times before. She’s just one of the many, many mothers and fathers who have shared similar stories with me since I started unGlue.

What I hear again and again from these parents is disappointment with themselves that they couldn’t protect their children better from technology. They can’t help being angry or irritated with their children.

And they’re confused by all of the apps and software options out there: Which one is really going to help my kids get a handle on their screen-time addiction? Should I use the parental controls on the iPhone or is there a better way to do this?

Most of all, what I hear in their voices is this great sense of resignation and desperation.

So, what do I do now?” they ask.

The first thing I want every parent to know is that we didn’t get to this point overnight. And the solutions won’t come overnight either. This is a problem that will require a massive change in mindset. A cultural shift. We need to start recognizing that our relationships with technology can be detrimental to our health — emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Our current obsession with technology crept up on us over the years. It got worse and worse as the internet became an essential part of modern life, smartphones became a virtual extension of our arms, and tech companies got smarter about hooking us with their content. If smartphones are the vehicle, social media, watching videos, and playing video games are the destinations.

Yes, hand-wringing over the possible ill effects of technology is nothing new. Remember when people used to say TV would “melt your brain” and video games would make your kids into violent bullies? None of that proved to be true. Why is now any different?

Things are different now because of three new developments: big data, behavioral analysis, and data science. Never before in the history of humankind has it been easier for companies to specifically target your personal tastes, needs, and urges exactly when you want it.

Companies are leveraging behavioral analysis to understand what motivates us to buy things, share our personal lives, consume content online, and generally stay plugged in all day, every day. They’re exploiting elements of human psychology such as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to drive our tech addictions. In essence, they know what makes each of us tick.

With major leaps in data science and computing power, companies are now able to process unimaginable amounts of information; what we call big data. This allows them to distribute highly personalized content, from our social media feeds, to streaming recommendations on YouTube and Netflix, to in-game environments (i.e. Candy Crush knows exactly what to offer you to keep you playing longer).

Television never came anywhere close to being this personalized in real time. It was a lean-back experience. You watched TV on its schedule, not yours.

That’s not the case today. Content is mostly consumed on demand in 2018. You can now binge watch an entire season of “Stranger Things” on its first day of release on Netflix. Hundreds of thousands of people actually do.

It’s not just personalized content that keeps us hooked. It’s the constant notifications on phones reminding us to check in. On average, people using smartphones in the US receive 45 push notifications per day! It’s the fact that platforms like Facebook and Instagram exist on a device that you can take anywhere with you.

That’s a recipe for addiction.

We now live in an age where massive amounts of computing power and endless streams of information and entertainment are available 24/7 literally at our fingertips. No wonder we don’t ever want to put down our phones. They’re too much fun; there’s so much we can do with them.

Because technology has become so pervasive, one temptation is to try to completely shut off access to the distractions — the smartphones, the gadgets, the internet, and social media. All of it, all at once. Go cold turkey.

But this kind of blunt approach never works, just like fasting is not a great way to lose weight. It’s not realistic to live without the internet or access to technology. You need to find a way to coexist with it in a balanced, healthy way. Technology is not the enemy.

The first step is to understand that it’s not your fault or your kids’ fault that they’re obsessed with their gadgets. As we’ve come to learn from insiders who are now coming forward, creating and feeding this addiction was a very deliberate strategy on the part of many technology companies such as Facebook.

And if you think it’s only a problem for your kids, think again. You are just as susceptible to the same psychological tricks that these companies are employing as your children.

I draw parallels to smoking cigarettes or eating fast food. As a society, we didn’t know better until it was too late. Millions of us got addicted before we truly knew how harmful it was to our health.

But now that we know, we can do something about it.

Here’s the philosophy I believe in that has already helped thousands of families:

Everything starts with a conversation: Any “solution” that doesn’t allow your kids to have some say in it isn’t a real solution. Your children should have some serious input. Brute force doesn’t work. When was the last time you pressed some magical button and everything became just fine with your kids? Exactly.

Limit only “addictive” use: The Internet, smartphones, watching video, and even social media are not bad. In fact, there’s a lot of good that can come from these things. A good solution enables parents to create different restrictions and schedules to separate tech usage that’s helpful and educational, like homework and listening to music, and tech usage that’s just entertaining and addictive. Just turning off the internet or locking your kids’ smartphones with one button is a temporary band-aid, not a cure. Blocking the supply does nothing to temper the demand.

Help your kids to learn how to manage their own time: The goal of parenting is to teach self-reliance. We practice it in every aspect of parenthood, from healthy eating to doing homework. You should approach technology in the same way. The ultimate goal is to help our kids learn how to manage their time and how to understand the value of time on their own. As I explained above, it’s super hard but doable. Your kids will one day leave home, go to college, have a job, and be independent of you. You want to make sure they know how to manage their time, on their own, without your OFF button hovering over their heads. That process starts when they are young, not when they turn 18.

Lead by example: It is not enough to talk the talk, we also need to walk the walk. A good solution should allow you to show the way by following the same rules on the same platform that you’re asking your kids to use. After all, you don’t ask your kids to eat healthy while gorging on a daily diet of supersized Big Macs.

The goal is not to alienate our kids, make them feel bad about themselves, or have them avoid technology (which will never happen). We should stop believing that we can “shake them” into obedience or that we can turn the clock back to when they didn’t have technology or prohibit them from using it at all. An all-or-nothing approach won’t work.

The right approach is to help them learn how to manage their time, within agreed upon limits. Let them understand the value of time by treating it as something that’s precious and can be earned (more chores done = more screen time). It comes down to creating healthier habits — after all, isn’t this our role as parents?

I don’t agree with the phrase “time is money.” You can always make more money. Time you can’t. There are only 24 of those precious hours in the day and you can’t create more. Our goal is to help our kids understand this principle. We count how many calories we eat, how many steps we walk, and how much money we spend. It should be easy for our kids to see how much time they spend on their devices. Now THEY can.

Empowering kids to make their own decisions around technology is the central philosophy of unGlue. There are other screen-time apps on the market, but this approach is unique, and actually works. We firmly believe that it’s the only sustainable solution for a modern world that’s only getting more and more distracting.

To mothers like Mary, I say that it’s not a hopeless fight. Far from it. We should believe that our kids have the capacity to make the right decisions and change their habits. Like all addictions, things will not get better after a day or after a week, or even after a month. It takes time to change, especially when the alternative is a lot of fun. There will always be hot new video games, more “must-see” shows on Netflix, and endless updates on Instagram.

As parents, I know we immediately feel the need to take responsibility when our kids get hurt or fail. It’s natural to question ourselves: Why wasn’t I there when it happened? How come I didn’t see it? What could I have done differently? The answer tends to be: “It’s my fault. I could have been a better parent.”

As our kids get older and more independent, we start to realize that parenting isn’t a one-way road. Our children have their own opinions, feelings, and reasons. They need to make their own mistakes. They fall, they get up, they learn, and they get stronger and smarter. This process gets them ready for independence.

We serve as their loving guides into adulthood, but we can’t and shouldn’t shield them from every possible thing that could hurt them. Somewhere along the way, we started to believe that it’s our job to manage our kids technology experience and time, even when they get older. Our goal is not to manage their tech experience but help them learn how to manage it themselves.

So, you can stop blaming yourself for your children’s tech addiction, and start looking solutions that prepares them for the future.

You can start here.

#digitaladdiction #deviceaddiction

By Alon Shwartz, 
CEO & Co-founder of unGlue and a father of three 
unGlue is the world’s first collaborative technology that empowers people to manage their digital distraction and screen addiction