In my six months on the road since The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age was released, the message I’ve heard most urgently from parents, educators, and even kids, is the one made recently by a New York Times book reviewer who found my book “unsettling but necessary.” The troubling side of our relationship with tech, she said, is something “parents probably already know but do their best not to think about.” The most gratifying thing I’m hearing from parents, educators, and even kids, is that they’re ready not only to think about it and talk about it, but do something about it.
That’s not easy when there’s so much to love about tech and how it can genuinely enrich our lives when used wisely. But as much as we love tech, we love our kids more.
I see it in my work with educators expanding core curriculum to teach students at every grade the social and emotional skills they need to be safe and smart digital citizens. Or expanding advisory and health curricula so students can talk honestly about the disconnect between who they are in class and who they are in the 24/7 online extended day after school.
I hear it when parents ask me how to respond when they discover their kids are in intimate online conversations with people they have never met irl: in a gaming posse or on social networking sites (sns) revealing personal and private family information, then making plans to meet up or hook up irl, with a naïve trust that is disconcerting to parents.
I also hear it in conversations about work-family-life balance, from the CEO suite to the newly employed young parents among the millions in the middle who find themselves perpetually “at work” no matter where they are when the digital ding! demands their attention.
Most inspiring are the kids themselves. When given a chance to think about how technology is altering their daily lives, many are moved to make changes. After hearing me give an assembly talk, student leaders at one sixth-to twelfth-grade school with high school boarders discussed the problems they see with the school’s new tech program that gives every student a laptop. They could see it was changing the school culture in unhealthy ways. Their words:
No one is talking in the halls or on the paths after class, no one makes eye contact.
It’s so easy to hide in your screen and pretend something really cool or important is going on, or play a game during lunch and never talk to anyone, but we’re not relating to each other or learning how to deal with all the awkward relationship stuff.
I miss the ‘fights’ we had in the common room trying to decide what movie we’d watch on Friday nights—now everyone is streaming Netflix on their bed. The quiet is eerie.
When I left they were planning how to present their data to the school administration. They want to push the pause button as a school community and rethink the impact of the laptop rollout. They wanted to reclaim their previously highly connected, socially vibrant irl school community.
Sometimes before I talk at a school, I’ll ask the administration to do a SurveyMonkey (anonymous) roundup of the crass trash talk kids have seen and sent to one another on their screens. In a subsequent session during my visit volunteer students read them, like a line poem, and we talk about the big disconnect between who they are in school and who they might be on line. We talk about how to outsmart the antisocial content on sns sites.
It’s a riveting and powerful teachable moment to hear student volunteers read their communal chorus of online quotes like “do you do anal, you’re a f-ing fag, you’re a whore and everyone knows it, I hope everyone in your family gets a different kind of cancer and dies.” When given the opportunity to talk honestly about the hard stuff that happens online, kids are educated and motivated to be their better selves in all domains.
As a therapist I’ve worked with boys and girls who’ve gotten swept up in social networking, taking risks they never would have irl. Unprepared for the risks they encounter, the viral speed and reach and impact of social networking, they’ve landed in dangerous psychological terrain that was very real, scary, and scarring.
Kids are just being kids—taking risks and suffering setbacks as kids have always done, long before tech. But tech has irrevocably changed the environment for childhood, and the learning curve and content of childhood itself—and that of parenting.
My intention and the focus of The Big Disconnect has never been to demonize tech but to focus on what children—and all of us—need most from one another. Kids want authentic, loving relationships and meaningful lives, and they—like a growing number of parents, teachers, and others—are awakening to the fact that there’s a difference between using tech to support that and letting tech replace it.
Tech is a tool and kids will be kids, and there is a powerful new connection between the two that has exponentially expanded the playing fields on which kids are growing up. Kids can learn anything from tech, but tech won’t embody your values, or love your child, or be thoughtful about the pace at which your child explores the world. Which is why candid conversation—“unsettling” as it may be —between a parent and child, in families, schools and communities, is all the more essential in raising kids today. Kids are growing up in what amounts to an amoral popular culture with unprecedented access to all kinds of adult content. That’s not alarmist; it’s just a fact. More than ever they need to be able to have honest, frank, unedited conversations with grownups who can help them dial in to their own moral compass.
The most gratifying thing about being part of that conversation with The Big Disconnect is also the most exciting thing. People are speaking up, sharing ideas, taking charge, deepening their relationships, and changing lives for the better.
I look forward to sharing those stories and insights with you here, along with the inspiring people, innovative ideas and strategies, and exciting research I find along the way. I welcome your comments and our conversation.