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Asking Questions is the Key to Parenting in the Digital Age

by Rachel Dretzin


Rachel Dretzin

Rachel Dretzin is the producer and director of the FRONTLINE documentary Digital Nation and a mother of three. Read more »

Three years ago, when I first started reporting on the topic of growing up in the digital age, everyone was worried about predators: kids unwittingly putting their personal information online, only to be snatched by stalkers who'd been tracking them for months; kids lured into meeting a stranger who they've been duped into thinking is their age; kids falling in love with a virtual friend who turns out not to be a friend at all.

These days, most people tracking these things agree that predator danger has been vastly exaggerated. Now we worry more about other things: about cyberbullying, about our kids posting something on Facebook that will come back to haunt them, or about their playing so many hours of a video game that the rest of their life begins to fall apart.

But my focus right now is different.

I have three children, ranging in age from almost 7 to almost 12. A few years ago, I saw the Internet largely as their domain, a place they would inhabit and grow up in that I only partly understood. But I no longer see it that way. In what seems like a heartbeat -- Is it since my phone turned into a portal to the Net? -- I've turned into someone who has trouble unplugging, who can't stop checking my e-mail, who struggles with distraction and multitasking and the fact that my social life is increasingly taking place more online than off. And now that I seem to have become a card-carrying member of the constantly wired generation, I have a whole new perspective on parenting in the digital age, one informed by personal experience instead of by abstract worries.

Of course, cyberbullying and privacy and compulsive use of the Internet are real issues. But I'm much more concerned about all of our dwindling capacity to pay attention.

In the course of making my latest FRONTLINE documentary, Digital Nation, I've spoken to college professors who bemoan their students' habit of Facebooking and Googling during lectures. They talk about kids whose papers are constructed as a series of unrelated paragraphs that don't have much to do with each other, because the kids got distracted while writing them. I've visited a research lab out at Stanford whose studies show that those who think they are skilled multi-taskers are actually terrible at it. They lose wads of time switching their attention from one task to another, and even their critical thinking skills are affected.

More importantly, I've watched these issues play out in my own life and the lives of my children. It's getting harder to pay singular attention to each other, harder to switch off that buzz in our brains telling us to "check in," to touch base with our digital technology, whether it be phone or laptop or iPod. It's getting harder to do one thing at a time when you have the option of doing eight. And it's really hard to see the value of just being still.

I don't want my kids to grow up in a world where there's no time to push the pause button and reflect. And as a member of the last generation that remembers what life was like before digital technology, I see it as my duty to teach them the value of a certain kind of attention.

Because these are my problems first -- my kids are still too young to see them as problems yet -- it's easy for me to use them as conversation starters. Rather than put lots of arbitrary rules on my children's use of technology, I talk to them -- frequently -- about my own struggles to manage my relationship with my iPhone and my laptop. I confess my lapses, chastise my husband when he sneaks a peek at his phone during dinner, apologize profusely when I violate my own promise to stay away from all tech while I'm around my kids at dinnertime. It's put a new focus on my parenting. I don't think my kids look at me as someone who has all the answers, but they do see me as someone asking a lot of questions.

And since we don't have many answers yet about this great social revolution we're all in the middle of, asking questions, in my opinion, is the key to successful parenting in the digital age.

So, how are you navigating parenting in the digital age?


Comments

Kevin W. Grossman writes...

Oh my have you hit on something that's come back to haunt this past week on family vacation (including taking time to comment on this post, although my wife is working out and my mother-in-law is playing a video for my 16-month-old daughter at the moment).

I'm a big proponent of mindful presence -- being in the moment with whomever you're in the moment with -- but I've failed miserably no matter what I've thought I've been able to do. My listening skills have been horrendous this week.

Your comment "I'm much more concerned about all of our dwindling capacity to pay attention" is one that I have taken heed to anew. Between staying plugged in for work and social media, I'm really a amorphous mess and not a very good family leader.

Sigh. Time for a time out. My daughter and baby on the way (due in August) are a ways out from fully navigating in the digital age, but that gives me time to learn, adapt, modify and elevate. To be LAME.

Ellie writes...

Thank you so much for addressing this topic. It is a critical issue for us and our children.

My almost 12 year old is begging for a cell phone, but we don't want him to have one yet. I know it is fun for the kids to text each other, but I do worry about cyberbullying and the like. I also worry about the distraction of it all.

I'm angry at our culture that has made this technology so ubiquitous for the younger kids. I can see it in high school, but why do 8 year olds have cell phones? It's not right, but then again I'm old school. We also limit TV watching to 1-1.5 hours a day.

mike writes...

kevin is lucky that he is still in the infancy of parenting (congrats, btw). my 12 year old splits time between myself and his mother. when we were together, media was rarified (except for music). i take a slightly more open view, as technology has been my livelyhood for over 20 years. however, i find it basic and base to balance on simple life skills i was never taught growing up. okay, we can setup your facebook, but then we're going to discuss temperature settings on the laundry or how to beat eggs with a fork. both of those things seem to bring us closer. and then while that's happening, we get to talk.

Sue Atkins writes...

I agree it's getting harder to just "be" we constantly feel we must be "connected" or doing something. I think it's a bit like having stress and what I call "busy - itis" as we get addicted to the buzz of instant interaction.
I remember going to school and talking with my friends there and then wanting to talk on the phone for hours to them at home but it's harder for parents today with i-phones and social networking to keep track of how long the kids are interacting.

I work with parents helping them to put back some boundries and limits and helping them to not bury their heads in the sand - kids need to have limits so they can learn to entertain themselves, find balance and learn to switch off, and learn to be bored at times.

It's all about finding balance isn't it really?

Sue Atkins
Author of "Raising Happy Children for Dummies"

Caroline writes...

Ouch. That was a wake-up call. Thank you for your article. My husband and I both work from home, and worse, as bloggers, which means we can theoretically work anytime... based on what you wrote, you can imagine what our daily routines are like. Now I just have to figure out how to restructure our daily habits, hopefully without traumatizing our 3 year old too much...

Simone writes...

Thanks to your article, I have stopped reflexively turning on the laptop and popping in a dvd for my daughter... the transition won't be an easy one, as my 2 yr old is VERY used to having access to her movies, but better now than later...

Duane M writes...

I agree with Sue A. It's all about finding a balance in our own situation that works for the family. I'm a full time student and my wife works two jobs, sometimes it's the only way to communicate during the day.

On the other hand, I spend as little time as possible online when I'm at home with the kids alone.

Sybol writes...

I am probably older than you, my youngest child is 21 and my oldest is 33. I see the change in relationships because of technology. I believe that there are pros and cons to the amount of technology that we have access to.
I also have two grandchildren which I nanny. I am looking for the balance. Technology is a vital part of our society today. We must find the balance though or the quality of relationships will decline. Setting times, such as meal time for no technology is a great idea.
I am glad that there is discussion and concern on this topic.

lulugrenada writes...

You hit the nail on the head. I do not like my kids to surf the web, we don't have TV and no cell phones. My kids are so different from the ones that do.

It doesn't bother me that mine don't have what other kids have because I want them to know they have a loving and caring family. Family is where the FOCUS should be.

Marla writes...

Your admission resonates here as well. I work out of my home office and find it's all to easy to stay in front of the screen most waking hours. I'm working on reclaiming one night a week when my husband, son and I "sign off" all screens and play a game or talk!

I'm also exploring the other surrounding issues having to do with our digital age manners beginning with what to teach our kids. My eBook, "Digital Manners and House Rules, A Handbook for Parents" will be posted soon. I'll be moving from family issues to talk about adult and workplace issues shortly. Hope you'll comment. I can't wait to view Digital Nation.

Thanks for the post!
Marla
http//:www.BeyondNetiquette.com

John writes...

Being in digital age it is teenagers who are quickly adopted to this age and the outcome is various considerable issues. I feel it is quite important parenting tip is to ask questions and to make teens to share their views on various things and being a responsible parent, one should provide basic facilities with proper guidance, otherwise it results to become teenagers to troubled teenagers

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