Teens, Technology, & Defensive Parenting

Earlier this week I read some interesting research about parents who have iPhones (I posted the article on Understanding Teenagers Facebook page) and it got me thinking about the way technology is shaping the practice of parenting.

There has been a lot written about how technology is shaping this generation of teenagers, but mostly this is has concentrated on the interaction of the young people themselves and technology.  Less however has been written about how teenagers are being affected by their parent’s use of technology.

In this post I want to suggest three ways parents are interacting with technology and the way that is affecting today’s teenagers.

Parenting From Fear

We live in the information age.  This ready access to information has lots of benefits just as it has loads of drawbacks.  One such drawback is that we get overloaded with information. This information overload can make us anxious and fearful in many aspects of our lives, particularly parenting.  Parents who are fearful will parent in ways that inhibit rather than empower their teenagers.

Parenting expert Dr. John Duffy argues that the overwhelming amount of Internet-induced knowledge is hurting both parents, and their kids. “In my opinion, we definitely have far too much information these days, and it can be crippling for parents. We need enough data to keep our kids as reasonably safe as possible. But beyond that, we just create reasons for fear. And we know that we rarely make our best parenting decisions from a point of fear. We become controlling and, effectively, unavailable to our kids.”

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, believes the overload of digitally sourced information is creating “defensive parenting.” She suggests, “Too much news exposure can lead us down the path of anxiety and can create a whole family dynamic based on the expectation of bad things happening. Living life defensively, trying to protect our children from every possible bad outcome, increases stress and physical illness in parents, and can increase anxiety in kids. It does not, past a certain common sense level, decrease the number of tough experiences that our children encounter. ”

There is a difference between being aware of risks and living in fear.  Monitoring our own intake of information as adults is an important aspect of developing an effective parenting framework that is positive not defensive.

Crowding Their Space

For many teenagers technology represents social space.  Via digital and mobile tools teens are able to connect and ‘meet’ with their peers and socialize.  The connectedness experienced online is just as significant for teenagers as that which they experience in the schoolyard or at the shopping mall. Those of us who are parents today may struggle to understand as we did not grow up with this form of social expression.

There is a lot of media information (and disinformation) about the dangers of the online space.  This narrative of fear fills the knowledge void of adults who did not grow up with an experience of the online social environment.  Parents compensate for this by either trying to restrict teenagers from engaging in the online space or by insisting on being present in their teenager’s online world.

The problem with both of these responses is they fail to assist teenagers to develop their independence and learn to act responsibly in the online realm.  Most parent’s wouldn’t ban their teenager from attending social functions or parties, nor would they insist on being invited to teenage social gatherings themselves, unless they had real concerns about their teenager’s well being.  Unfortunately many parents today have concerns about the online space that have little relationship to reality.

Of course some parents are at the other end of this continuum and fail to set any limits or provide no supervision of their teenager’s online and mobile activities.  This is the same as  not knowing where your teenager is at night or allowing your teenager to host unsupervised parties in your home.

Not Letting Go

The advent of mobile technology has also created an expectation that we are all contactable all of the time.  I doubt this is a helpful expectation for any of us to live with, but it certainly can cause issues for teenagers who have anxious parents.

Once upon a time nervous parents waited up until their young teen arrived home from a late night. Parents had to wait until after the event to learn what they could about what happened or didn’t happen.  For the teenager the freedom to go out and socialize without the presence of mum or dad was one of the great expressions of independence.

These days that sense of independence is often muted or snuffed out entirely as parents use technology to track their teenager’s every move, monitor their communications, and obtain hourly status updates.  It is pretty hard to feel free and make your own  decisions when you are being tracked, monitored, and required to report. How do young people learn to make their own choices, take responsibility for their own actions, or recover from failure if they are always being watched?

Mobiles and smart phones offer some real advances for personal safety and accessibility, but parents should be aware of taking these benefits and turning them into burdens.

I would love to hear what others think about the way technology is shaping the practice of parenting. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image by *saxon* 

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