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'iFamily Values': Social Media, Technology, and Parenting

Wednesday, 5 December 2012  | Ian Packer and Stephanie Packer

‘iFamily Values’?

Social Media, Technology, and Parenting

Ian Packer (aka ‘Dad’) and Stephanie Packer (17)

Parenting is difficult at the best of times, and we are yet to meet a parent who has greeted the teenage years with excitement. The prospect of struggling in a contest of wills with teenagers is hardly inviting. It wasn’t really at the forefront of mum’s and dad’s minds when they decided it would be great to start a family.

Being a teenager is not all it’s cracked up to be either. Whether looking in retrospect or prospect, grappling with the pressures of hormones, peers, parents, and a post-high school future, along with juggling doubts about self-image and self-worth… well, it’s all a bit of a downer on what TV trumpets as “the best times of my life”.

Sociologists tell us that the phenomenon of ‘the teenager’ or ‘adolescence’ is a relatively new social and cultural development, a product of the rise of consumer capitalism. ‘Teenagers’ emerged as a new spending bloc who are encouraged to assert their independence through spending on fashion and entertainment, often exacerbating tensions in the family—the so-called ‘generation gap’.

Still, this is old news. But there are some new developments in our social world through which we need to navigate as families. The explosion of on-line social media is now a part of most families’ lives, and has been enthusiastically and uncritically embraced by teenagers, taking up plenty of leisure (and homework!) time. But there’s more to this than simply ‘wasting time’ (as some parents might say). Along with a number of harmless effects, social media also feeds off and feeds troubling social and family dynamics that are worth taking into account.

Aside from Dad’s academic interests, Stephanie made ‘The iFamily’ (on entertainment technology and family interaction) an HSC project, and even conducted a survey of 55 families on their use of entertainment technology. With this in the background as well as a bit of contentious family history behind us, we—Dad and two daughters (19 and 17)—sat down to discuss how parents and teenagers might work through all this together.

1. Don’t Be Naïve about Technology
Social media is not simply an extra means of communication but a technology that shapes our interactions as we adapt our lives to its increasingly pervasive influence. For one thing, it is fed by our increasing appetite for newer technologies. Looking back over the last few decades, we see that our new devices have provided us with faster means of communication and increased access to entertainment. (For more, see Ian Packer, “Human Scale and Human Pace: Living with Everyday Technology” Zadok Perspectives No. 94 [Autumn 2007]: 7-9) The VCR opened up the possibility of family members being more flexible as to when they watched particular programs but it also meant family members might watch the same programs at different times rather than together. Now we see that TV shows and movies can be accessed not only by broadcasts at a particular time but through multiple channels on cable television, DVDs (rented and purchased), and internet streaming. DVDs can be watched not only on a dedicated player with the family TV(s) but also on computers.

The home computer was first advertised as an educational tool and the last two decades have seen not only a computer in virtually every house, but a computer per person. The multiplication of these devices and their portability means that family members can watch different shows at the same time. Family members wander off to their own individual space rather than common family space; or the sharing of common space can be disrupted through attention to cyberspace such as online chats or blocking out others with headphones. Our family has occasionally communicated between rooms through online chats rather than going up or down the stairs!

The multiplication of devices encourages the teenager to watch movies or play their video games or chat with friends in their ‘own space’ and in their ‘own time’ without the company of the family or supervision of a parent. And it encourages the teenager's ‘need’ to be constantly entertained and moves the focus of entertainment from the common space of the family room to the private space of the bedroom.

2. Be Aware of Social Media and Peer Pressure
Social media sites and web chat programs are useful for distant family members to communicate and keep up to date. However, sites like Facebook encourage teenagers to have hundreds of ‘friends’, more than they could possibly have in face-to-face relationships. We can now be aware of other people's minute-by-minute thoughts from status updates. We can look through each other's photos. Uncovering the 'secrets' of Facebook users intrigues many people more than talking to other familiar family members who are physically present.

Chatting online makes relationships seem like they are dependent upon an on-and-off switch where the relationship is only active when we turn on our computer and log on to our account. We are able to ignore a person and 'turn off' the connection when annoyed or generally whenever we feel like it. These 'controllable' relationships from online chats may influence our interaction with family members. At our worst, we can tend to treat them as though they were able to be switched off: if we don't want to talk, we shut them out with silence or headphones, retreating to private space or cyberspace.

Christopher Lasch entitled his book on the family Haven in a Heartless World. The family home is supposed to be a safe space, not only facilitating moral and personal formation but providing distance and relief from the ‘course of this world’ and the pressures of peers and culture. If teenagers are already inclined to invest too much of their sense of self-worth in the opinions of their peers, what happens when that influence is extended beyond school and occasional get-togethers and parties to an unending influx of opinion and a conversation online that doesn’t seem to stop?

Teenagers without Facebook can begin to feel ‘out of the loop’ of conversation, not knowing the latest ‘news’ (i.e. gossip) or what ‘events’ are being planned. For this reason alone, it is important for parents to be aware of the time teenagers spend on-line and to insist on time free of peer influence.

The girls noted that the uploading of photos including posing in imitation of models and sometimes revealing photos of girls led them to feel somewhat competitive with friends and others. Keeping up with what everyone was saying was occasionally depressing and threatening to self-esteem. Given the issues of peer pressure, they recommended not permitting access to social media too early.

3. Get involved in the technology
It can be easy to become intimidated with the rapid influx of new technologies. What generation phone or network are we on this year? Kids adapt to these things more quickly and ‘naturally’. A surveyed parent commented: “Our daughter is only 2 and she knows how to use the iPod to watch her favourite cartoon. We pretty much have to hide it away from her for most of the day.” In After the Death of Childhood, David Buckingham notes that “children’s expertise with technology gives them access to new forms of culture and communication that largely escape parental control.” Parents need to be involved.

We all need to be conscious of our actions and it is difficult for teenagers who are immersed in technology to break free from the temptation to ‘go with the flow’. One initially unpopular intervention in our home was the networking of devices with a program that allowed the management of internet access, listing of visited websites, and even viewing of computer screens. The prospect of mum or dad being able to ‘look over the shoulder’ at what was on the screen was one form of proscribing behaviour (and even a warning to friends ‘entering’ our home on-line to watch their language and conversation). The degree of monitoring—which was not secret but disclosed—was annoying to our kids but when used in tandem with conversation and consequences, and varied according to trust and age, was a useful tool that even the kids acknowledge was helpful (in hindsight).

There were several rules in place for the use of social media, including limited time, but also the non-negotiable requirement that we parents be ‘friends’ with the kids on social media sites and thus able to see what was happening in their lives. (Kids now photo-document everything!) Some parents send their kids ‘friend requests’ and are rejected and then do nothing, acting as though they have no say. Parents are parents, not peers hoping to be invited in. The on-line world is part of life, not some special, exceptional realm beyond the scope of parental authority or influence.

4. Not just rules but character and grace
Life together needs structure and norms for us to flourish as human beings but merely seeking conformity to rules tends to lead to the search for loopholes or simply flouting parental ‘commands’. More important is the development of character and forming new habits together, shaped with conversation and imparting wisdom and understanding. But even more important is a context of grace and forgiveness.

Teenagers will experiment with things that parents would rather see them avoid and not be hurt by. Don’t be permissive but also be ready and prepared for disappointment. It will happen. But parents disappoint their kids as well, with bad temper and sometimes with what feel like unreasonable demands. So it works both ways!

5. A commitment to community and individuality
Parents exercise substantial authority over their children in order to maintain discipline as part of a common family identity within a common family ethos. There is an expectation that family members will be committed to the good of the family. But there is also a process of each member maturing and recognising his or her own unique identity and we need to make space for teenagers to develop this.

Strong emotional connections and a sense of togetherness are enhanced by creating a ‘family history’ to share memories and make new ones together. In Family Ethics, Julie Hanlon Rubio highlights how even the seeming simplicity of the regular family meal together can help ward off problems that are exacerbated by time only with peers:  

A recent Time magazine cover story brings together a plethora of studies showing that the more often a family eats together, the less likely children are to drink, smoke, take drugs, be overweight, have eating disorders, get depressed, or consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay sex, avoid drugs, eat healthy food, have a good vocabulary, and use good manners.

There are powerful forces at work in our culture shape us all. Families need to be vigilant and confident in their shared traditions and actively engaged in how and when they use technology in order to lead lives more closely conformed to the vision of Christian discipleship.

Ian Packer
is Associate Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity & Society and Stephanie is his daughter.

This article first appeared in Equip, a publication of Ethos. For more information about Ethos publications, contact or (03) 9890 0633.

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