Help Parents Win With Digital Media and Their Teenagers by Brad Griffin
If there’s anything that causes me to scratch my head routinely as a parent of adolescents, it’s technology. Digital devices, social media, constant connection—these realities present an endless barrage of decisions I’ve never had to make before as a parent. And they’re not just one-time decisions. They keep changing, cycling, and morphing at dizzying speed.
Like me, most parents of students in your ministry have wondered—and worried—about the relationship their kids have with digital technology.
And the relationships they have with each other as a result of emerging digital realities.
We worry about what they’re doing and saying and seeing online. Parents worry not only what they’re posting publicly, but also what they’re sharing privately. We’ve put these tremendously powerful technological tools in teenagers’ hands and we expect them to live up to incredibly high standards—higher standards than most adults—when it comes to how they use their devices.
BLAMING + SHAMING PARENTS—OR STUDENTS—ISN’T GETTING US ANYWHERE
The minimum age for becoming a device-carrying kid keeps dropping—now into the elementary years. It’s no longer uncommon for a fourth or fifth grader to show up in our churches with a smartphone connecting them endlessly to the world. Somewhere along the line, a parent bought that phone and agreed to pay for the data plan.
The age they gain access to social media platforms also continues to drop. Parents routinely cave and allow not just 12-year-olds, but also 9-year-olds to create accounts on Instagram and other social media that clearly hold the bar at age 13 (by law) for access.
What we may not see as leaders is that for many parents, it feels like a no-win situation. We shame parents for what they’ve given their kids, and for what they aren’t paying attention to or limiting when it comes to devices and social media.
They, in turn, shame their kids for what they’re doing—even when they don’t quite get it. Most often this turns into refrains of “Put that thing down!” and “Look up at me when I’m talking to you.”
Ultimately, parents shame themselves for not being better at all this.
It’s an ugly cycle.
A NEW WAY TO SEE DIGITAL MEDIA
Sometimes it seems as though all these devices and networks exist in between parents and their kids. And it feels out of control.
That’s what MEDIA means—“in the middle.” But media doesn’t have to be a divider in families. It has great potential to be a connector, a bridge, and a set of tools families can use to support their relationships. In other words, rather than putting media in the center, we can put relationships in the center. That’s good news parents need to hear.
In the midst of this conundrum, here’s our role as leaders: to encourage and equip parents. NOT to blame, shame, or add lots of “should” to their lists. Instead, this is one of the most incredible partnership opportunities we have as leaders.
They desperately need support and guidance. We typically know more than they do about what’s really going on in teenagers’ digital worlds.
Here’s one way we can help parents win when it comes to digital media in their families:
CONNECT PARENTS’ LUNCHROOM BACK THEN WITH THEIR KIDS’ LUNCHROOM TODAY
Like it or not, we can’t remove digital like a stain from young people and get them to think about media and use it like we do. That’s not the world they live in now, and it’s not the one they’re going to live in as adults. One of the biggest gifts parents can offer their kids is not to shame them for living in the only world they know.
It can be challenging growing up in a society where everything is changing at a breakneck pace, and where your parents, by default, often seem like immigrants. The last thing you need if you’re a teenager is more shame that your use of the technology available to you is repulsive.
The key shift for parents here is to help them focus not just on how they use media, but why they are so digitally connected. The how will change as fast as the next app release. The why goes much deeper.
We can help parents see that in reality, most teenagers are not addicted to MEDIA, they’re addicted to EACH OTHER. Like teenagers have always been.
Here’s one huge way that plays out on social media. Adolescents are constantly wondering, “Who am I?” They find answers in connection with others, especially peers. For a few generations now, school cafeterias have been a kind of petri dish within which young people experiment with this “work” of identity formation.
To parents and teachers, the noon break is about eating lunch. But for teens it can be the defining moment of the entire day. It’s where they can be themselves, but as people still learning who those selves are, it becomes a social laboratory. Every lunch is a kid’s opportunity to experiment, tweak the formula a bit, and get ready to test out the new version tomorrow.
The cafeteria experiment is filled not only with conversation, but also tons of non-verbal communication through students’ seating location, clothing style, what and how they eat, and how they respond to each other. Parents can appreciate this if they dig back to their own adolescent days. But some things have changed.
Parents often underappreciate how a quick scroll through social media for a teenager can be like looking around the lunchroom. Ironically, this often happens in the actual lunchroom and continues on throughout the day and late into the night.
We can help parents see that social media platforms are teenagers’ way of checking in, comparing, picking up and dropping social cues, and knowing whether they’re “okay” (at least for today). And just like the real lunchroom, sometimes they care too much.
What can we help parents do? First, help them empathize with this new reality. Social media, or for some teenagers social gaming, is one of the contexts in which their kids are working out some of the biggest questions of their lives. Once parents develop more understanding and empathy, they can take next steps like:
- checking in about how social media is shaping friendships.
- asking how their kids feel about the kinds of interactions they’re having online.
- establishing mutual ground rules for how parents interact with their kids (or not) on various platforms.
- finding and supporting offline, in-person ways for teenagers to connect with their friends in real time and space.
Ultimately, our support as ministry leaders can help families get beyond rules to relationships, walking the road of support that helps young people form healthy patterns they will ultimately carry with them into adulthood.
That’s a parenting win. That’s a ministry win.