Teens and Technology: 4 parenting strategies to help you BOTH thrive

For our 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 and phones which were attached to the wall.
Helping our teenagers navigate technology, smartphones, social media and apps

Teens and Technology: 4 parenting strategies to help you BOTH thrive

By Mike Olson
Assistant Junior High Principal, Bellevue Christian School

The following article was originally posted on Spirit 105.3’s All Mom Does blog 12.14.17 and is re-shared with permission.

For 23-plus years, I’ve worked with junior high kids for a living, which makes me either crazy or heroic, depending your own 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 high kids, well…junior high kids.

I’m also a parent of three teens, and my wife and I often find ourselves facing the same predicaments and questions as I daily face at work:

  • What do we do about that?

  • What if we overreact?

  • What if we underreact?

  • Is this a phase, or a sign of a larger problem?

If we’re honest, we, as parents, often find ourselves in a Catch–22 with phones, such as:

  • 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.

Addressing the Ubiquity of Phones & Social Media

San Diego State Profession Jean M. Twenge published a startling article in the September 2017 issue of the Atlantic detailing correlation of the increasing in teen depression with the advent of their Smart Phones.

For our 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 and phones which were attached to the wall. While addressing this ubiquity can be maddening, it’s our reality and we need to respond with truth and grace.

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, 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, I recommend 3 guiding principles  and 4 key strategies to teach and model when addressing Phones & Social Media with your teens:

3 Guiding Principles

  1. Worship: Everything for the glory of God and good of others.
  2. Stewardship: Your phone and content-streams belong to God, not you.
  3. 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.

4 Key Strategies

When working with kids and their phones and tech I encourage you to focus on 4 key strategies:

  1. 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 when we were teens. The big difference is, they have a loudspeaker from which to announce their immaturity.
  2. Remember: 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. Social media has turned so many of us into inadvertent brand managers, constantly curating our profiles to make sure we 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.
  3. KIDS NEED BOUNDARIES. I highly recommend having our kids deposit their phones at a location outside their rooms at night, at a designated time. Social media and apps are like video games in that they are intentionally designed to never end, so we need 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. I highly recommend reading  the book iGen by Jean Twenge, as it’s the first to provide a data-driven understanding of technology’s impact on our kids and culture. Use data meaningfully so as to avoid seeming arbitrary in your parental decisions.
  4. 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.

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.  Mike will present a dynamic Father-Teen breakout session on parenting through your teen’s technology yearsDon’t Freak Out! Kids, Phones, Sex & What To Do – at the 2018 Higher Ground Men’s Conference. The one-day event is Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018 and features local football great and 710 ESPN radio host Brock Huard as keynote, and special guest former Seattle Seahawk Clint Gresham.
Discounted Father-Teen Combo tickets available.