It’s nearing the time for kids to head back to school. Summer can be a time to let down our guard and get more relaxed with parenting. There’s many hours to fill and sometimes just letting technology babysit our children gives parents some time for themselves. For our children, technology is a big part of their world. They don’t remember a time it didn’t exist and they don’t always conform to having it scaled back.
But early morning starts, school routine, and homework will return bringing with it a need to either restrict or reduce considerably the time our youngsters spend on digital devices, social media, and video gaming. This can often become a battleground between these two generations. Most parents were not raised in this fast-paced, ever evolving digital world and yet we are responsible for helping our children to be safe online as well as teaching them how to best manage technology.
Many parents can find it difficult to impose rules and regulations when they hear their children expressing their deepest desires to just stay connected online, when they see that their child crave theses online social outlets. Kids then back up this need with statements like, “Everyone is online”, or “My friends are all gaming”. And the guilt sets in. Moms and dads don’t want to be the source of their child feeling like they are missing out or don’t fit in with their peers.
I had this same dilemma as a parent and I made many mistakes. In hindsight, I wished I’d recognized several years ago, just how destructive chronic and compulsive use of technology and gaming could be. I now realize that my son was a functioning gaming addict during the high school years. He was able to hide the number of hours he was online late in the night and he still somehow pulled off decent grades and had a great desire to go to university. He had lots of friends and got together with them occasionally, spoke with all of them via social media and text. He appeared to be managing just fine. His need for more privacy and his moodiness I chalked up to teenage hormones. I believed things were “normal”.
I allowed him way too much online freedom and didn’t impose enough restrictions. I didn’t regulate this time. I ignored his obstinate and indifferent attitude, believing he’d eventually mature out of it. I didn’t impose more rules, as I should have, preferring to leave things as peaceful as possible. Like many parents of tech savvy kids, I felt outdated, out of the loop, and quite frankly, scared of sounding old fashioned and stupid. I wanted to be hip about the emerging changes to the internet, to the way kids were interacting with each other, to a world I really knew so little about but wanted to be accepting of. After all, this was a part of this generation’s world. I should be more open minded and evolve with it. And in the midst of trying to be cool and understanding, I forgot that I needed to still parent.
The summer between first and second year of university, when my son was gaming into the early morning hours and sleeping until dinner time, I attempted to make some changes. But now I felt trepidation about my rights as a parent. My son was now an adult. I’d left it too late to make any impact. He became quite angry when I suggested he get more work outside of the house to fill his summer hours and help with his tuition costs. He convinced me that this would be his last “free” summer before his course co-op kicked in and he’d be either working full time or going to school through the summer months for the next four years. I relented. I didn’t want him to be angry with me. I didn’t want to ruin his opportunity to play. After all, he would be working for many years to come after this. And I didn’t believe I had a right to parent my adult child. Unbeknownst to me, my son was also guarding a secret and had no intention of giving up his many hours of gaming. He used any means to continue his compulsive need to be online.
My wake-up call came when my son was in his first semester of the second year of university. Severely addicted to video games, failing academically, barely thriving, and being asked by the school to leave, my son sent me a desperate and shame-filled email asking for help. My lack of parenting had inadvertently enabled his gaming compulsion. I was filled with so much guilt.
My son had to return home and be under my care. He was nineteen years old now, but he needed parenting. He was in a fragile emotional state created by an obsession so strong he’d sacrificed his own basic needs. He needed enormous support. He needed regulation, boundaries, and rules – the very things I had been too afraid to put in place years earlier.
I had to tell myself that while he was living under my roof and not paying room or board, I had the right to make the rules and I had an obligation to follow through with them, even when it was scary and challenging. I gave myself permission to risk having him hate me and I gave him permission to do so, as well. I took full responsibility for my role as his soft place to land, his unconditional footing, and his surrogate for reasoning.
It was painful, it was terrifying, and it was a constant source of struggle and challenge through denial and relapses. But staying the course and staying strong was what I should have done so much sooner, a necessary part of the parenting journey I had missed.
Regulation with the internet and technology can be done in your child’s adult years, if necessary. We don’t stop being parents when our children turn eighteen. There will always be teachable moments and they will always need to count on us when they feel there is no one else to turn to. But it is best for your child, when you implement the security of these necessary guidelines and rules long before they become adults.
Despite the resistance a child can impose, as parents we can make decisions that are in the best interest of our child. Children will give us a hard time. They will work exceptionally hard to convince us that they know better. They will test our conviction. We have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and forge ahead anyway.
Each child and every family will be different in their approach to the use of technology in their home. Some children can manage more online time than others. Know your child and make the best decision to suit their individual needs.
When your kid tells you that your effort to regulate their video gaming and/or social media time is taking away their time to have fun, this is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how they define the word fun. This is the time to point out that fun can be found in many forms. Working at a part time job, spending time with friends and family, in person, can be enjoyable. Pursuing physical and artistic activities outside of the internet can be pleasurable. Having balance in their lives is necessary and healthy in order for them to fulfill their life goals. This is the conversation I wish I’d had with my son.
When your kids tell you that everyone is online or playing video games, this is an opportunity to talk about the importance of expanding their social circle outside of the internet. Friendships can be made in several avenues and face-to-face interpersonal interactions help them to build trust with others. We don’t always see a person’s true self online. This important lesson my son didn’t learn until he was going through addiction recovery.
When your child tells you how difficult it is to go offline and create new habits during those times, tell them you understand how hard it is, and ask what you can do to make it easier for them. But don’t give in and return unregulated time with technology back to them. Stick to your conviction to give them the most balanced opportunities that you can. You are then role modelling integrity. You are showing them how much their welfare matters to you, even if they don’t want to see it at this time. My son now thanks me for my tough love in his early adult years. I wish I’d been that tough so much sooner.
Sit together and create a family contract to set basic expectations around technology. Make use of internal Apps available to you and your family, like Apple Family Share or Google Family Link. These help you to set up family sharing, limits, and parental controls. This will help to encourage dialogue about limit setting and boundaries using an online tool, something your child is more comfortable with.
Don’t allow your child’s defiance stop you from moving forward with change. Ask for help, look for other parents to support you, look for professionals who you can lean on. Don’t get caught up in battles. Be soft and firm at the same time and hold your ground, even when it seems impossible to implement your rules.
Remember that your child doesn’t have to like your digital rules. Parenting isn’t easy and we do have to make some unpopular decisions. But, handled with care, your child will eventually see that you are one of their favourite people, after all. They will learn that you truly have their back, because you do.