Parenting Teenagers In A Digital Age

For many parents, guiding their children through the digital world can be overwhelming given the speed of change in technology and its impact on affecting behaviour. Brett Ryan, CEO of Focus On the Family Australia offers parents practical guidance for establishing meaningful communication and connection with their young and teen children who are caught up in a digital world so they can be screenwise.

Today’s Digital Natives

Our children are living in a digital era. Gen Z, the demographic cohort born between 1995 and 2009 comprise 30% of the world’s population and they are more digitally literate than previous generations. Brett Ryan, in a recent webinar titled “Screen Time or Scream Time: Parenting Teenagers In A Digital Age”points out that toddlers can now learn to use an iPad before they know how to speak.

For many parents, helping their teenage children to navigate screen time so that screens do not hijack their lives can be deeply challenging. According to Brett, research indicates that

“On average, teenagers spend 9.5 hours a day on their screens. They also text on average up to 300 times a day.”

They may seem like unbelievable statistics, but when you realise that devices are used for school, to socialise, for entertainment and to shop, it is easier to see how much time of our children’s lives is on screen. Technology does bring benefits but when misused it can lead to developmental problems with speech, motor and social skills. By spending too much time on devices, children can also be deprived of much needed Vitamin D and sleep, as well as contributing to obesity.

How do you help your teenager children to not have their lives hijacked by their screens? Brett suggests there are several practical ways to help teenagers in their digital use while not seeming like a controlling parent.

Practicing What You Preach

Similar to Jesus’ teaching that you first remove the plank from your eye before you remove the speck out of another person, Brett recommends that parents look at their own behaviour with digital devices before they start to ‘preach’ to their children on their use.

It is vital for parents to model to their children self-discipline when it comes to using phones and screens. Brett continues:

“If you are on the phone all the time or binge-watching on Netflix, your child will not hear out your concerns on their device use. You want to take your children on the journey.”

Empathy is our ability to not get caught up with ourselves and to step inside someone else’s shoes. For a parent, this requires listening to their children and not trying to fix their issues when they are expressed. Brett advises parents to be prepared for whatever your child may share, which could include an addiction to pornoography. Such an addiction can develop from a very young age, so parents should consider having a conversation with their child before they hit their teenage years.

“Nothing should be taboo. As parents, we need to get out of our comfort zones.”

If we react out of fear, we can shut down a much needed conversation and provide the assurance that there is a way through the present struggle.

Becoming Screenwise

Brett says we need to approach digital content as we do food. What is the quality and quantity of the digital content children are being exposed to? Is it addictive? Brett points to the Christian scripture in Philippians 4:8 (NIV) as a useful guide:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Parents should be educated on current social media platforms which change all the time. While a lot of teenagers struggle with “FOMO” (the fear of missing out) some apps are unsafe if unwisely used.

Brett highlights that popular platforms used by teenagers at the moment including Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok can all be utilised by teenagers in a way that can harm their personal lives now and into the future. We need to teach our children of the need to think before they click and choose privacy settings so they don’t accept requests from strangers online. Parents should also be aware of the increase of cyberbullying that can occur through these platforms and unlike bullying in the playground can be relentless if the child is online a lot.

Connected Disconnect

While Generation Z are known as ‘generation connected’ with instagram and many other apps, they can also cause depression, anxiety and a lack of tangible social awareness. Brett explains:

“You can develop a high IQ but have a low EQ.”

The increasing dominance of an online culture can make it difficult for young people to detect facial and body language. Brett recommends that one of the best things a parent can do is to encourage their teenage children who are 15 or 16 to find a casual job so they can learn important non-verbal cues and learn how the world works. Encouraging an outdoor lifestyle, or hobbies that don’t require an internet connection like reading and art can help your child to switch-off and enjoy healthier ways for recreation.

Please visit our website www.families.org.au for more resources to improve the health of your family.

Brett Ryan

Brett Ryan is the CEO of Focus on the Family Australia. He is a media commentator and keynote speaker covering a broad range of topics such as relationships, parenting, mental health and suicide, sexuality, drugs and alcohol and work life balance.