Mike Olson is a graduate of SPU, and has worked at Bellevue Christian School since 1994, where he currently serves as the junior high assistant principal. He’s been happily married to his wife Jenny for 22 years, and has three kids, ranging in ages from 13 to 18.
I work with junior high kids for a living, which makes me either crazy or heroic, depending your experiences with 12-14 year-olds. Today’s junior high kids tend to come fully-equipped with smartphones, which, among other things, highlight and exacerbate all of the things which make junior kids, well…junior high kids. Most of the time I just get good fodder for blog posts like this one, while other times things turn more serious and consequential.
In my 23-plus years of working with teenagers, the kids haven’t really changed. Technology, however, has changed dramatically (and quickly!), creating a need for fluid policies and responses, often times without much data to go on. My colleagues and I often find ourselves saying “so…what do we do about that?” in response to student scenarios which, just a few years ago, weren’t even a possibility.
I’m also a parent of 18, 16, and 13 year-old kids (girl, girl, boy), and my wife and I often find ourselves in similar predicaments. In both cases, many of the same questions arise: what do we do about that? What does that mean? What do we do with what we know? What if we overreact? What if we underreact? Is this a phase, or a sign of a larger problem? It’s quite a list.
What’s even more challenging and frustrating is how often we adults find ourselves in a Catch–22 with phones. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
- Uttering the phrases of “I am so sick of these phones!” and “Why aren’t they responding to my text?!?” within ten minutes of each other.
- Confiscating your kid’s phone, then getting irritated with them for not responding to your text. (Bonus points if their phone dings in front of you when your message comes through.)
- Reading posts about the dangers and ills of too much social media…on your Facebook feed…from your phone…when you should be doing something else…again. Drat.
- Feeling like a dope when you thought you were on top of your kid’s social media life, only to discover they have all kinds of secret accounts you never knew existed. (Bonus points if they get busted at school for shenanigans on any of these underground accounts. NOTE: school administrators like me do not relish having to be the bearer of bad news, particularly when said news makes parents feel like schmucks).
Ubiquitous phones and social media can feel like beach sand. You spend time at the beach, bei ng ever so careful to avoid getting sand in your bag, yet continue finding it in everything for the next month (same with Easter grass in the months of April and May). One can become speechless with frustration before too long. Perhaps you’ve tried the intense parenting approach. Or, perhaps you’ve considered the cool parent approach. Sadly, fear, guilt, and being a wannabe hipster aren’t particularly effective strategies.
For kids, ubiquitous technology is normal, and, for many, vital for social survival. For adults, it’s a persistent stressor, often making us feel like hapless luddites longing for the good ol’ days when cable TV had 36 channels (32 of which were useless), and phones which were attached to the wall. Heck, you felt like a technological superstar when you could finally program your family’s VCR clock so it would stop flashing “12:00” night and day. If you’re under 30, you may not get that joke, but you can Google it.
This can all be quite maddening, but it’s our reality and we need to respond. Hopefully this can help.
What follows is a list intended to provide some meaningful structure and guidance in working with your kid(s) in the areas of phones and technology. The key starting point in all this is customizing your approach to each individual kid. With our three kids, we tweak our overall plan in ways specific to their personalities and needs. For one, it’s content monitoring. For another, it’s handling the constant blitz of messages and conversations (which would literally go 24 hours a day if we let it), while the third just wastes too much time! All three have different apps, permissions and restrictions based on their personality and track-record.
From a Christian perspective, three guiding principles are critical to teach and model:
- Worship: Everything for the glory of God and good of others.
- Stewardship: Your phone and content-streams belong to God, not you.
- Representation Nothing you ever do or say just affects you.
These principles are Biblical and create a lens through which to view technology usage for everyone in the house, not just kids.
When working with kids and their phones and tech, stay calm. While the challenges involved with ubiquitous technology are many, it can become easy to see a cultural Boogey Man behind every corner. I’ve seen many parents freak out when their kid does something shady on their phone, and while their actions do merit a response, kids will make mistakes—often similar to those we made back in the day. Difference is, they have a loudspeaker to announce their immaturity. Blunders will occur, so attempt to address the underlying issues and create a reasonable plan moving forward.
Speaking of underlying issues, remember that kids want, more than anything, to belong. Very few want to stand out, but no one wants to be left out, and phones and social media are the dominant form of social currency. Where this gets tricky is in managing apps. Instagram has a different vibe than Snapchat, though both feature pictures, videos, and “stories,” which is a fancy version of Facebook status updates. What it has done is turn many folks (adults included) into inadvertent brand managers, constantly curating their profiles to make sure they are getting attention and web traffic. If our identity is to be in Christ, self-focused brand management is a real issue, which is why building a coherent approach to technology needs to start with worship. In my opinion, the dominant underlying issue is identity. We serve God or we serve ourselves, and phone-based social media present a non-stop temptation to move towards the latter.
This is why kids need boundaries. Have them check their phones in to a location outside their rooms at night, at a designated check-in time. Social media and apps are like video games in that they are intentionally designed to never end, so you will have to create, explain, and enforce boundaries. We now have data which tells us that kids aren’t going out as much, sleeping less, and struggling to relate to others in healthy ways. Kids need to be fully apart from their phones at times, not just have them across the room. Along the lines of awareness, I would highly recommend reading this book by Jean Twenge, as it’s the first to provide a data-driven understanding of technology’s impact on our kids and culture.
It’s important to know how apps are designed. In short, they’re not neutral. This is important because we tend to assume so, thus creating the illusion of control in how and when we use our devices. As you’ll see by watching this clip from 60 Minutes, it’s quite the opposite. I would encourage you to watch the rest of this piece, as well as anything from Tristan Harris. Understanding how apps are designed gives credence to your boundaries, and uses data meaningfully, so as to avoid seeming arbitrary in your parental decisions.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. This current “iGen” movement began around 1995. As Twenge’s book points out, Internet and phones have created an entirely new set of questions, dilemmas, opportunities, and data streams. In short, we have to parent differently than previous generations, and as parents, we are, to a certain extent, flying blind in how we deal with it. There’s a balance-point we need to find and develop. Too often, we vacillate between overreacting and underreacting, usually out of fear and feeling overwhelmed on both ends. Phones belong to God, and He has called us to be parents for “such a time as this,” and we can do it. We now have data at our disposal which can guide our boundaries and mentoring for kids, as well as our own tech use, knowing that how we model tech and phone use matters tremendously.
In closing, in addition to cutting yourself some slack, remember to do so with other parents as well. As parents, we can become judgmental very quickly when we see or hear about other kids’ social media blunders. Like you, other parents aren’t encouraging their kid to swear, show too much skin, brag, or otherwise misuse their technological platforms. We have enough challenges with our own kids, let alone other kids, so let’s support one another as we try to figure this stuff out.
Well, like the Internet and video games, my emails never end, so on to that now.
The Higher Ground Men’s Conference will be held in Bellevue, WA on February 10th, 2018 and will focus on spiritual authenticity, sexual integrity, and social justice. Featuring keynote speaker Brock Huard (ESPN) and special guest Clint Gresham (former Seattle Seahawk), it will also have breakout sessions on a variety of topics including one designed especially for fathers and their teen sons. Buy your tickets now, or surprise your hubby with a fantastic Christmas gift that will make a life-long impact.