Talk to any group of parents today – as a psychologist and it doesn’t take long for them to bring up the thorny issue of technology and how it is impacting on families. At the Family Peace Foundation we believe that technology is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand there is evidence that there are a range of web-based programs, smart phone apps and biometric devices that can help families manage their lives better and that they are cheaper, more convenient and easier to access than many alternatives.
On the other hand we have people like Stuart Armstrong, a researcher from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, who in 2014 gained worldwide media coverage when he warned that computers were becoming so clever that they could become our enemies, take all our jobs and eventually ‘exterminate’ us all. In 2016 physicist Stephen Hawking claimed that it was a ‘near certainty’ that technology would threaten humanity within the next 1000 to 10,000 years.
The young people I talk to dismiss these warnings as the latest in a long line of moral panics and continue to immerse themselves in (and enjoy) technology in all its forms. In contrast to their parents, who use technology at a comparatively very basic level, to text or Facebook message friends or hop online to book a holiday, many young people are extremely tech savvy. Their parents are in technological kindy compared to their offspring.
Today’s teenagers have never known a world without computers. They can code, program and are completely up to date with all the latest advances. They are fully conversant with Instagram, Snapchat and the dark web, are comfortable with AI (artificial intelligence) and many have an Amazon Echo that virtually organise their lives for them.
Much of the alarm/hysteria about young people, technology and the end of civilisation as we know it is somewhat misplaced. There have been moral panics about ‘young people’ and ‘the latest gadgets’ for hundreds of years, be it record players, radio, TV, CDs, mobile phones, social networking or video games. The truth is, that while many parents have a penchant for demonising technology, especially the parts that they don’t understand, young men love and use their technology. It’s not going anywhere – so as parents, we need to get better at understanding, using and supporting our children’s positive use of technology.
Unlike many parents, kids see no dividing line between the ‘real’ world and the ‘virtual’ world – for them being online is their entire world. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reports that more than 80 percent of teenagers aged 12–17 years are regularly online. This is why young people don’t necessarily see a difference between online and offline bullying, and why those at risk online are likely to also be at risk offline. In other words – negative use of technology is just a new form of an old problem rather than a product of the technology itself. And the skills that serve your children well in the offline world are also likely (but not always) to be reflected in the online world – such as respect for others, empathy and kindness.
The Pew Research Center in the US found a difference in the ways that teenage boys and girls use technology to socialise. Boys tend to make friends via online gaming, whereas girls are more likely to make friends via social media. According to the study, video games play a ‘critical role’ in teenage boys social lives, with more than 80 per cent of boys saying they play video games on a daily or weekly basis – mostly with friends.
Unless you are living on the Antarctic shelf (and perhaps even then), conflict about your teenager’s use of technology is likely to be a permanent fixture in your home. Many parents can be overzealous in their attempts to control phone, game and computer use due to a lack of confidence or knowledge about the online world. A simple technique for working out if you need to loosen the reins (or tighten them) is to consider if your son’s technology use is interfering with his physical and mental wellbeing and his completion of the key tasks of adolescence: making good friends who support him, doing well at school, and slowly becoming more independent.
The Family Peace Foundation recommends some house rules that you may choose to use or modify for your own circumstances:
• With rights come responsibilities. If your teenager is given a mobile phone, then he must understand and agree to use it in a responsible way – or he doesn’t get one in the first place.
• Phones must not be used while homework is being completed.
• Teenagers can have privacy in their bedrooms or access to the Internet, but they can’t have both. The Internet is a public place – which means it is used in a ‘public’ room, such as the lounge room if it is for homework then appropriate filters should be applied such as Cold Turkey or Our pact.
• Older teenagers may be permitted to make phone calls in private – if the phone comes back out with them once the call is completed.
• For younger teenagers, their use of technology should be conditional on the premise that they will show you, whenever asked, what they are doing online.
• Set clear time limits on the use of technology. For example, primary school children can be allowed one hour per day of screen entertainment. This can increase to two hours in secondary school.
• Set a time at night when all devices are put on charge or locked away in a public room of the house, especially if you have a son who is inclined to not follow the rules
• Switch off the wi-fi overnight, which you can do automatically if use you Our Pact or similar apps.
For younger teenagers, you may wish to use one of the tools available which allow you to enforce the boundaries that you set. Free software programs such as Our Pact, Cold Turkey and Self Control are all easy to use and allow you to block, for a set time, websites that your son may be distracted by when he should be concentrating on other tasks, such as homework or chores. For older adolescents, don’t rely on filters – maintain a watchful eye on their technology use. Smart kids can work around filters in a flash. Encourage and initiate outdoor or other indoor activities, with offline friends and family. But be aware that the friends your son has online are important to him and may help him feel valued and supported.
Lastly, remember that some young people benefit greatly from the support offered to them by the online community, especially if they are experiencing issues that might mark them as ‘different’ in the real world, such as having a disability or chronic illness.
So while Stuart Armstrong may see technology as potentially the end of the world, the Family Peace Foundation is less worried, our message is be alert – but not alarmed.