Want to be a digital mentor for your child? Step 1: Admit you know nothing.
I’m scanning through my Facebook newsfeed during a 25 minute long episode of Dora in the City when the new AAP recommendations on screen time catch my eye. The guidelines include revised screen time recommendations for children ages 6 and up, from two hours a day to no official screen time limit. Rather, the panel recommends prioritizing homework, physical activity, extracurricular activities, family meal times, and after all that whatever is left can be dedicated to screen time. It makes an important distinction between media for educational use versus entertainment, and encourages families to seek and find their own balance with technology. Parents, it recommends, are to assume the role as “media mentor.” Toward this end, the panel made an additional recommendation specifically geared toward parents and their own technology use, reminding us to put down devices during meal time and parent child playtimes.
The recommendations came out at the right time, as I had been turning over David Ryan Polgar’s recent opinion piece in my head. In it, he asks — where are the parents? How have we virtually all but disappeared from the digital debate on kids and technology? How do we change this? How do we assume the role we need to, the one that panels of pediatricians and technology developers and child psychologists and everyone smart tells us we need to — how do we become media mentors for our children? Or more importantly, why aren’t we already?
We already mentor our kids every day in lots of ways. We mentor them through the uncomfortable recess when there was no one to play with. We guide them through a broken heart and a skinned knee. We teach them how to read and throw a ball and slide feet fist into the base. We teach them how to share the trains at the train table, and apply for a job. We mentor them through experiences and challenges we’ve already faced. So why, here, do we need other people to drive this particular conversation with our children? Why is it so much harder to be a media mentor?
Because we’ve never done it before.
You know the expression about dog years? In media and technology years, on average I’d assume most modern day parents are the equivalent of an 8 or 9 year old. So really, what we’re saying is, why aren’t there more 9 year olds driving this conversation, guiding their children through the process of how and when and why to use technology in a way that is safe and fun and creative?
Because we are still learning. Also, because we don’t know how. And because we don’t even know what we don’t know.
We are reacting and learning and living each iteration of these gadgets in real time. We are so busy trying to keep up with our kids’ activities and get to soccer practice and go over the spelling words and check on the elderly parent and schedule the breast exam and pay the mortgage and we’re just drowning. It feels like we are just gasping for air. And so we go online and tweet and post and Snapchat and Instagram our way through it. We need each other. We need an outlet. All of this makes sense.
But we never really learned how to use it. Any of it. Our parents never taught us because smartphones came of age long after they were the target audience for most of this stuff. So we were left to figure it out at the same time as we were trying to figure out how to raise the kids and navigate adulthood. We tried to figure it out well past the point where we were actively learning or internalizing new stuff. There was no one there talking to us about the dangers of internet addiction or what it means to leave on online footprint or even tech etiquette. There was no one reminding us to guard things like patience and boredom like precious jewels. We figured it out as we went along which generally speaking was good enough. At least it was before we had children.
If we had the capacity and the knowledge, I suspect the very first thing we would need to teach our children as their media mentors is boundaries. Specifically, we need to teach them how to self-regulate: how to plug their phone in downstairs before bedtime, how to not check it at night, or how to not post weird things online at 3AM. We need to teach them that there are moments in a day where it might not make sense to use a phone, perhaps like an interactive mommy and me class. Or the dinner table. Or when driving. But as I take in nearly every space that I am in lately, I am so struck by how consumed grown-ups are with their gadgets. I am struck by how limited our capacity feels to do just that: to self-regulate. And if we can’t start from sort of fundamental notion of when it makes sense to use technology, I’m not sure we can even begin to delve into any deeper level conversation with our children and other stakeholders about how to create a safe and thoughtful digital community.
The other day I was at story time at the library with my 2 year old. There were six adults in the room with six children. The children were all happily engaging with each other and playing with the toys. Four of the adults were on the phones. I and the other woman sat there, half awkwardly, wondering if we should speak to each other, or interact with the children or just pull out our phones. I can say honestly, I thought I knew what I was supposed to do. But the social norms the other adults were modeling around me told me otherwise. It was disjointing.
I read a story recently about a man who invented a special clip that you could attach to a baby bottle to hold your phone while you fed your child. To say this story troubled me would be an understatement. This is not to say that most of us at some point haven’t flipped on the tv or checked our phones while doing a feeding. But inventing a gadget so that you could have your phone with you every single time? It is the perfect illustration of the extent to which modern parents literally do not understand when and how to use this stuff. That AAP panel — they are making those recommendations for the guy who invented this bottle feeding cell phone holder. So I’m afraid there is a bit of a gap between the expectations of the parent we are supposed to be for our children in every other way, and our limits to teach and model things which we ourselves are still struggling with.
Imagine a world in which we sent our kids to school every day to learn to read with teachers who themselves are still trying to sound out words? This is the answer to the question of where are parents in our national digital dialogue. This is what turns over in my head as I read the revised APP recommendations. So where are the parents?
We are over here buried underneath our gadgets and other people’s expectations of the parents we are supposed to be, still sounding out the words.
Setting boundaries around devices that are made to shatter boundaries between people and spaces is indeed challenging but not impossible. It is hard. And it requires us to own this hardness and model what is hard about it for our children. It requires us to come up with independent and shared solutions about how to create and hold boundaries around technology. It requires us to talk with them, not at them, about what our thought process looks like when we create these tech free spaces. About why it matters to hold them, to nurture white space, and conversation, and awareness. And to do all of this with the understanding that technology can be innovative and fun and creative and all sorts of good things and that we don’t have to fear it or the part of ourselves that in general is prone to addictive tendencies. But we do have to own all of it together.
I’m not sure if our children are waiting for us to mentor them in technology, but rather are waiting for us to mentor them in how to admit our mistakes, how to admit the limits of what we know, and how to stay open to taking in new information at any age. Doing this will not necessarily make us their digital mentors. Perhaps it will just make us human.