This week, in the middle of election debate season, tangible climate crisis, pandemic return to school and continued racial and societal injustices, our family decided to watch Netflix’s, The Social Dilemma. I knew it was tough timing. We’ve recently been engaged with our media — personal, professional and educational — in a way that feels like our all time peak use. But, in different online parent groups I saw the documentary trending and because of my career as an author and speaker on Digital Health and Well-Being for families, I knew we had to make some space for it.
My husband and I, and three of our five screen loving children, ages 12, 14 and 16, settled in after dinner and homework to watch. We took a break about forty five minutes into the documentary to debrief, ask questions, offer pushback and share our feelings. Then, when the film was complete, since we were all a little tense and torn about our love of screens, we agreed to go our separate ways and revisit the conversation another day.
Now, a few days and a few hard discussions out from our original viewing, I feel less interested in commenting on the movie itself, but instead, want to reflect on what happens to families — often including my own and those I work with — when we take in an intense amount of content that threatens or confronts something we do regularly or have allowed to be part of family life. I see this happen with particular intensity around screens.
We feel bad. We feel overwhelmed. We feel paralyzed to make decisions or changes. We feel shame and confusion. We hide. Our kids know this about us. They know we feel guilt about screens. They know we love our screens just as much as they do. But we blame everything — especially when it’s convenient to our narrative of need, our discomfort, even our outrage — on screens. This makes them want to protect their life online. What they see and do goes underground. It becomes secretive. We stop normalizing use and our kids start to internalize it as an activity that is bad. Because the adults don’t always know what to say and do as we raise the first full digital generation, we are defensive and afraid. And it shows.
Screens become an unsafe place for our children and teens to question, to feel confused about and especially unsafe should they need help. How do I know this? Students tell me by the thousands in my workshops and talks at schools across the country. They tell me they love and respect their “Askable Adults” but can never go to them if they have a problem online because they’ll take the screens away. And I hear the rise in panic in parent and community talks when a new study, data, book, movie or article hits the web. The helplessness and uncertainty — of a quote, a headline, a fear — turns to anger. Our children feel that anger. They think it is at them.
I urge families to rethink this reaction on our path to getting to really know our screens. I urge parents to guide and lead their families with intention through this macro look, at our micro use in this giant industry. I urge you to think of tech use as a partnership with your children and teens. I invite families to consider ways to continuously connect tech, values, boundaries & expectations instead of the tsunami of overreaction that is often a total (and temporary) overhaul or dismissal. We can begin immediately.
- We can educate ourselves and our families. Media literacy and the critical examination of tech is part of modern day parenting and caregiving. Great gateways to ongoing conversations around social media and tech include documentaries like The Social Dilemma or Screenagers. They cannot, however, be the beginning and the end of our learning and growing. They are tools for communication, reflection and personal (or familial) development.
- We cannot get so trapped in our guilt and anxiety around tech use that we shame ourselves into compliance with what is “good” tech use and hide parts of our life online. We must resist our nature to shut down, lash out & criticize after viewing a film or reading a study that addresses big issues like ethics, addiction, privacy and impact to the self and our family system. Instead, we must keep our family in a state of consistent engagement and openness to nurture a continued dialogue.
- We can have it both ways. We can understand the business, advertising and manipulation of media and also continue our use with a healthy perspective and consciousness, not perfection. Whether we like it or not, tech is here to stay and will be a part of family life. To not face this reality is a refusal to understand it. We must welcome the technology in ways that work for us and for our children. We must get to know it, be in relationship with it, therefore acknowledging its power and persuasion.
- We can identify places we feel challenged by our tech. We can observe some habits and behaviors we’d like to improve, while also addressing that some aspects of our life on screens are healthy, useful and positive. We can assess that some tech behaviors are an enhancement to our lives, while others are having a negative impact. This must be a nuanced conversation, as ongoing and dynamic as the industry itself.
- We must, above all, value the relationship of the humans we are raising. Do not let the screen become a barrier or friction to the connection. Don’t let it divide your household. Take the time to look and hold and sing and play with your child, but also integrate their life online to your life away from screens. It is — you are — the seatbelt to a safer and healthier life online.