Digital Parenting Is Relational | Janell Burley Hoffman | 2 Min Read

This week I was talking to my oldest son. He’s a recent university grad and cycling through graduate school application season to become a mental health therapist. He thinks about relationships and systems in his work and life and is often someone I talk to about tech and its impact on society — particularly children and families. I was sharing with him how the families with whom I work have been overwhelmed by screentime-related research, contraindications, and guidance lately. Screens feel imperative in society right now, but we’re also made to feel scared and cautioned about the risk. It evokes anxiety and second-guessing, which can bring real tension to at-home dynamics. 

I go on to tell him when I’m in a conversation about screens and digital parenting with various communities and caregiver groups, they are really begging for a prescription or fixated on “right” and “wrong” use of screens. It can be a challenging part of my job because I believe it is more nuanced than that. And deeper. I tell my son that I want to give them tools to set boundaries and engage with tech, but mostly I want to ease their mind. He asks me what I would say if I could say exactly what I wanted to as concisely as possible. I told him I could summarize it like this: 

Love your kids. Feed them. Shelter them. Hug them. Talk to them. Be curious about them. Help them learn to express feelings and ask for help. If we know they have this foundation and these skills, screen time won’t feel so threatening. 

Know that there will be moments of overuse or heightened use, times when they make mistakes, and times when what they see on their screens will make them feel less than. But all of this will happen away from their screens too, in the analog world. It’s part of growing up and even a necessary part of their development.

Make the parent-child connection so strong it can handle the bumps, the feelings, the missteps, the confusion and develop the skills to keep going together. 

I tell him it would be a call for a perspective shift entirely. It would move away from screen micromanagement and reprioritize the relationship. It would also help families build their individual family system goals and have the confidence to lead their families in this space. We would be less afraid and more empowered. But this takes courage. And it also makes space for joy — as in the enjoyment of screens and each other. It negates a lot of power struggles and is a more balanced, long view of the family and screen relationship. My son told me, “When you have the next chance to say this, say it. I think parents might be ready to hear it and just might need it.” 

I walk in the woods later that afternoon reflecting on how these words might land. Is it oversimplifying a very real struggle? Is it dismissive to parents in need? Does it let tech giants off with no accountability? Is it too clunky and hard to put into practice? Maybe. But it also includes these components, it doesn’t ignore them. It knows the duality and often the multiple truths of tech. But it centers the relationship — centers connection — above all else. And I believe that’s how we truly parent technology.

Janell Burley Hofmann

Janell Burley Hofmann is an international author, speaker and consultant specializing on the topics of technology, media, health, relationships and well-being. Janell is the creator of the original iPhone contract and a thought leader in the space of digital mindfulness, digital parenting and intentional use of tech. She is the author of the book, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up published by Rodale, Inc. Janell is the founder of the Slow Tech Movement and iRules Academy. Janell has worked on four continents across diverse demographics, cultures, religions, and socioeconomics. Sensitive to the needs of each community, Janell works with schools, youth, families, educators, and organizations while offering private coaching and consulting sessions. Janell’s professional expertise and personal experience as a mother of five children builds strong connections with a wide and varied population. Janell engages readers, clients and audiences in relevant and meaningful conversations igniting personal empowerment, awareness and purpose in a partnership that will positively impact all. Janell’s academic background includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Media Studies, a Master’s Degree in Critical and Creative Thinking and she is currently working towards her licensure in mental health counseling. Her featured talks include two-time TEDx presenter, SxSW, YPO Southeast Asia Summit, Peace Corp Workshop Leader, Homecoming Day Nagoya University, Nagoya Japan, YPO Middle East Tour, Women2Women International Summit and MIT Strata Center. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Good Morning America, USA Today, National Public Radio, BBC News and The Associated Press.

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