Amber who is 14 uses her phone late at night because she “needs” her music to sleep or uses her phone for “homework". Amber who is really just bored and can’t sleep begins creating an secret life at night with mostly innocent intentions and begins meeting guys online through apps like instagram, tumblr, kik, tinder, snapchat, etc. Although 14 even Amber is sometimes shocked by the audacity of some of the conversations from guys she is meeting online; however, it’s late, she is bored, and it feels really good to have this very personal attention whenever she feels lonely ...even if it can be annoying at times.
Over time Amber secretly looks forward to going her room, shutting her door, and chatting with these new found relationships. Soon a subtle change begins. Without Amber even realizing it, Amber slowly begins to disconnect from her real world as her thoughts subconsciously start gravitating more and more to the secret life behind closed doors. Slowly Amber’s grades begin to suffer. Teachers begin to ask questions, parents become concerned, and Amber gets more and more irritable and increasingly defensive as people continue to ask what is wrong with her or point out her falling grades.
Ironically these conversations only push her further and further away into the behind closed doors late night conversations which eventually lead to comments like, “You are so pretty”, “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “What are you wearing?". Soon in Amber’s mind it is only these secret relationships who really understand her and care about her. Everyone else now seems even more annoying and the suggestion from parents to limit technology at night becomes a major source of arguments, tears, and resentment at the mere thought of taking away her new found addiction and pseudo love relationships.
The beauty of these relationships in Amber’s mind is there is not just one guy telling her she is beautiful, but many. How do you say “no” to this? It feels good to be valued, to be told you are attractive, and to feel wanted. To her this is an adrenaline rush and slowly seduces her into a virtual dependency which in her mind seems easier and more real than her real world. In Amber’s mind, even though she is 14, she believes she knows better than her parents and since parents don’t understand the new app world, Amber quickly dismisses any attempts of her parents trying to set boundaries.
Now that some of these late night bonds and attachments have been formed, Amber discovers feelings she has never had before, well at least not to this extent. Slowly Amber now feels LOYAL to these virtual relationships and somehow behind closed doors these once mere strangers now seem to be indirectly impacting her whole life. Slowly but surely like wolves narrowing down their prey these late night conversations with men around the world gravitate towards topics like “What turns you on?”, “Truth or Dare”, and the exchange of pictures.
In Amber’s mind she feels this virtual world is easier than the real world. Why? because in her real world Amber experienced severe bullying her 6th grade year. As a result her grades started to slip, she started getting sick more often in an attempt to avoid school, and the tension between her and her parents became more and more explosive. Amber’s rationale? “Even if guys are pushing for inappropriate pics, at least if I don’t like someone, I can delete them...I can’t do that in my real world”. Additionally, trying to win people’s approval in the real world just takes too much work. Why put the effort into something so draining when she has guys waiting for her to get home so they can compliment her and spend time with her?
Although not a true story, this story reflects much truth in the many things teens share with me behind the closed doors of my counseling office. This scenario in no way exaggerates the level of severity as it relates to the dangers of technology, and in fact is probably a mild representation of what really goes on. For those of you who know me, I am not anti-technology nor anti-social media, and I often believe boundaries and consequence should depend of each child’s level of maturity as opposed to being a hater of all technology or social media. However, I’m sure you can relate that we are in a generation of parenting where all the rules have changed and we as parents need to regroup to figure out what we will and will not allow in our homes in an effort to protect our children and find balance in a world driven by technology.
Believe me I know and feel the level of discouragement and frustration as parents as we try to protect our kids from the dangers of technology while at the same time recognizing this is now the world we live in. Kids will probably not understand until they are the parents the level of hurt that can come from death stares, eye rolls, venomous language, and most importantly the estrangement from our own children in exchange for pseudo relations from complete strangers and late night closed door conversations.
Even as we try to set the boundaries by demanding to delete certain apps, social media, email accounts, or toxic people, it seems this generation is one step ahead of us by finding their own creative ways to bypass pass codes, reinstall hidden apps, or create additional secret accounts that parents may never be aware of. It can sometimes feel like we are the first generation of parents trying to play catch up with our kids as it relates to technology skill and the kids consciously or subconsciously easily take advantage of this often times walking into their own self destruction by the enticement of online relationships and technology. Yes this same argument can be made for video games, multi player chatting relationships, chat rooms, role playing, as well as pornography.
As this story and many others unfold in front of me, I feel a responsibility to learn and share with parents the real dangers we face and try to empower as many people as possible because it often feels we are in a battle of sorts for our own kids in our homes without any leverage of our own. I sometimes find it fascinating as I witness the facial expressions and language of teens in family sessions when parents try to set limits. Almost like a drug addict who is being told they no longer have access to their drug of choice, these teens will become enraged refusing to give up their smart phones or technology as if their life depended on it.
I often feel like the intensity of this scenario is like a well-meaning person approaching a wounded and trapped animal trying to release it and set it free. As the “protector” in the analogy approaches, the animal hisses, snarls, and threatens violence if you dare try to help it! The wounded animal can’t comprehend nor has the awareness of the strangers intent and therefor must be an enemy.
Although most of my clients would hate me for saying this, experience shows with kids who don’t have the maturity to handle technology, that these kids desperately need to be released from the trap inspire of the hisses, snarls, and threats. Will you be emotionally or verbally punished and harassed for setting these limits? Yes. But usually this toxicity doesn’t last forever. More often than not when parents set limits and stick to their guns and endure the wrath of their children, kids eventually move into acceptance. Now they may not like it, but once the reality is accepted, parents more often than report…”Hey, I have my kid back!” Again, almost like a drug addict who needed to go to detox to get his/her head together, setting limits creates the detox kids often need to reengage in the real world outside of their virtual relationships.
I think sometimes because we love our children so much or because we are exhausted, we tend to avoid confrontation with our kids. I can honestly say I have been guilty of this as well. My encouragement to you is to be seek to be a unified front as parents and make the hard decisions and stick to it. Now again I’m not saying all technology is bad, I’m only saying as parents it is helpful to set these limits based on our kids maturity level and proven responsibility with social media.
A few ideas for limits when needed?
No realtime chatting or virtual relationships behind closed doors. Bring the desktop, laptop, phone, iPad, xbox, play station or whatever to an area where there is accountability and in the main area of the family living space.
If kids claim they need their music to sleep, their phone as an alarm, or their texting as a means to cope by having friends who are supporting them, don’t allow them ALL freedoms of technology in order to accommodate them. Instead set the same boundaries only allowing them the things you believe are battles not worth fighting in order to win a greater good. Some parents are even willing to buy an inexpensive iPod or alarm clark just to eleviate this argument and protect their kids from the late night intimate conversations with strangers.
One of the ideas I really like that I wish I would have heard of sooner is kids checking their smart phones in at night to parents instead of trying to fall asleep to white/blue light of a digital screen and endless distractions of texts, Skype calls, intimate chatting. I think this is extremely difficult to do once they have become accustomed to having these freedoms, although this does not negate the fact that this limit even is sometimes still necessary. If anything, I think this is a wise suggestion for parents introducing technology to their children from the get go. This is why I feel we are in the generation of parenting of where it feels like the blind leading the blind and hindsight becomes 20/20
Try to explain to your kids you are not anti-techonogly if you are not; however, you have a responsibility to make sure they use it appropriately. For example, “We don’t mind you spending time on appropriate youtube surfing and realize this is entertaining or relaxing; however, you need to get your responsibilities covered first. So this message is not “We are old we don’t get it”. The message is, “ We get it, but moderation and self-regulation is a non-negotionable”
If and when you can achieve the technology detox with your children, now is the time to reintroduce reengage in more productive life giving activities that involve your child’s interests, hobbies, and passions. At first they may retort, “I’m bored”, “What else am I going to do?”. Although sometimes a volatile conversation, this is the exact questions you want your kids to be asking. This means they have to wrestle with the reality of not having their addiction at their finger tips. This is the time to close the door to endless screen time, and open a new door to realigning them in preparing for adulthood and healthy relationships.
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Christian T. Hill, MA