It’s funny how times have changed. We used to teach people not to get into cars with strangers, and now we frequent Uber and Lyft. Kale used to be merely a “garnish” placed around other food and now it’s a “superfood.” People used to burn CDs or illegally download music and now everyone is on Spotify. If you wanted to watch a movie you had to head to a video store. If you wanted to be famous you needed more than a YouTube channel. We only had four networks, people got their news from the paper, every home had an answering machine, few people recycled, and smoking was still allowed indoors. Even courtship has changed. We used to have to walk across a room, make eye contact and start a conversation that would hopefully result in a name and a phone number … now people just “swipe left.”
Now, before I begin to sound like that grumpy old man down the block yelling for those “darn kids to get off my lawn,” I’ll just say that I love the freedom and ease the internet, smartphones, and various tech platforms can bring to jobs and tasks. I hated going to Blockbuster to pick a movie up. I couldn’t stand being stuck in a room where people were smoking. Kale is still gross, but I digress.
One of the things that hasn’t changed in the past 25 years of working with teenagers, however, is their desire for attention. Phones and social media simply offer teens a different method for gaining the immediate and constant validation that everyone craves. It’s easy to get frustrated with our teens and pre-teens. The “War of the Screen” is a battle virtually every teen parent I know (myself, very much included) wages on an almost daily basis. For all the potential good that comes with devices such as smartphones and tablets, there comes just as much — if not far more — potential for bad with social media, online bullying, pornography, and just a general demise in normal communication skills and a growing social ineptitude for all, not just teens.
So, how do we — as parents — help guide our teen and pre-teen children through the minefield of social media, the bombardment of screens, and the constant need for overstimulation?
We have to begin first, not with a screen, but a mirror.
Out of the “Minds” of Babes
A few years ago, there was a fascinating project given to a group of grade school children by Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. (founder and director of Raising Digital Natives). They were told to come up with ideas for new apps. These apps could be anything they wanted, but they had to work together to agree upon singular ideas.
One particularly relevant app they wanted to create was called the S.T.E.L. app, which stood for “Stop Texting, Enjoy Life.” What did the app do, you ask? Well, it wasn’t for the kids’ phones or tablets, it was an app to be downloaded and installed on their parents’ phones. The idea was for this voice recognition app to immediately put the phone on sleep or standby mode when it heard the voice of the child say their Mom or Dad’s name.
Isn’t that sadly fascinating? When given the chance to create an app that could do anything, these young souls desired nothing more than the full and undivided attention of their parents at home.
You might be thinking, “Well, my kid is obviously not in that class … they’re glued to their screen,” but whether your child is glued to their screen has precious little to do with whether or not you are glued to yours. Or does it?
When people ask me the hardest conversations I have with teens, they are rarely about sex or pornography or same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. Those are delicate, to be sure, as you sit and unpack the Church’s wisdom on the subject with patience and mercy and charity. No, the most gut-wrenching conversations I have are with teens who come from good homes and good families, who often have both parents still under their roof but who will be the first to tell me that their parents are not present to them emotionally.
I’ve certainly made this mistake over the years. I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking “being home” is “being present” and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s sadly ironic that the more wireless we get, the more difficult it becomes to actually “unplug.” There’s always “one more email” to check or “one more text” to rattle off. Face to face conversations have been replaced not with calls but with texts and, increasingly, not even texts but emojis. It’s easy to get sucked into that work “vortex” where — before you know it — you’ve been in a room with someone, 20 minutes have passed and not a word has been spoken. It’s easy to want to be mindless after a long day and just check Facebook. It’s easier to seek stimulation online than it is to strike up a conversation with a teen you fear may have no desire to talk to you.
But they do want to talk to you. Your teens are dying to talk with you.
So what is the secret? Why does it seem like so many teens don’t want to talk to their parents and what can we do to change it?
“With” is not “At”
First, ask yourself, “Do I talk to my kids or at my kids?” Are you asking them open-ended (rather than “yes/no”) questions or are you speaking “at” them about things they need to do or not do?
Next, do you model presence to them when you’re together in the car or at home or out running around? Do you silence your phone, log off, put it out of sight or is it always “on you”? If their presence and attention are important to you than model it to them.
Third, do you ever just “waste time” with your teens? Now, spending time with our kids is never a waste, obviously, but do you ever just plop down next to them on the couch when they’re watching something, or take a seat next to them at the counter and just talk — with no agenda, no list, no topic, per se? The better we get at talking about the normal, inconsequential, everyday things, the more open they will be when we have to talk discipline or depth or faith.
Next, do you have clearly delineated times regarding screen usage, expectations, and boundaries? Half of the fights that occur over screens or “not being present” are a result of clear lines and expectations never being established. Even if your child has had their device for a long time, it’s never too late to do some retroactive parenting and setting new parameters, like “no phones in restaurants or at the dinner table,” “phones in the kitchen at night, not in your room,” “all passwords are known by Mom and Dad”, etc.
Fifth, do you know what your children want and need prayers for, every day? Now, this last one might seem like an odd departure from the previous few but if we don’t know the answer to this most basic but most important question, how present are we really to the souls that God has entrusted to us?
Little did the apostles know prior to that Holy Thursday night, the gift that God the Father had in store for them at the Last Supper. There was no way they could have fathomed — even with knowledge of the prophecies from old — what a profound and inestimable thing that was about to take place when Christ instituted His priesthood and gave us the Eucharist as His enduring and true presence.
Here was Jesus — Emmanuel, meaning “God with us” — offering not only His flesh and blood but His eternal presence. This is how He would fulfill His final promise in St. Matthew’s Gospel to “be with us always.” This is how He would not only feed us as God’s children, but, also, model for us what it means to be parents. God, fully present to us all of the time. The Eucharist is not just a profound gift but a lasting invitation and challenge to all of us as parents to do and become the same: fully present.
Things have changed, to be sure, over the past few decades but God’s desire for us as His children and from us as parents has not. Teens desire companionship, affirmation, validation, and attention from those they love most. If they don’t get it, they’ll look for it elsewhere, in friendships and online. God’s desire was for you to be that voice and guide, that’s why He entrusted them to you.
Go back and read Deuteronomy 6:4-7. Re-read Matthew 28:20. Memorize Romans 12:9-10. Power off the phone. Plop down on the couch. Enjoy the ability to watch any movie on any platform without taking a drive to the video store. Better yet, take a walk or a drive with your child away from all the screens, remind them how much you love them and how thankful you are to be the one God chose to raise them.
Your time is more valuable than any smartphone … so give them the most valuable thing you have: yourself. That’s what Jesus did.