Once I was at a friend's house, a dear friend of mine, and we were talking in the living room. Suddenly he received a call. It was his kid. The kid was upstairs and did not want to come down to ask him if he had seen his favorite shirt.
It got me thinking... why on earth wouldn't he come down and ask? Is this something that happens often? Why did my friend allow this to happen?
You're probably thinking "it's not that big of a deal" but today, inspired by the encounter at my friend's house, I would like to take a moment and explain to my readers why what happened was very wrong. How it is a reflection of the changing way we are communicating with our children and it is hurting both them and us.
THE NEW ZOMBIE ERA
I love my phone. I love spending time on my phone. I love getting notifications, sharing pictures with my loved ones, reading the news, sending voice notes... everything! The thing is, I'm an adult. I know when to stop to fulfill my responsibilities.
Children, on the other hand, know little about time management. They have much more free time than adults do which lends to them naturally staying glued to their phones.
I call it the new zombie era. We've had zombies before in every generation. There have been radio zombies and newspaper zombies, reading zombies and tv zombies. Now, we usher in the era of the smartphone zombie.
When we look back, none of our previous zombie eras were as harmful as smartphones. Our phones interrupt our reality daily. Our zombies eras before did not reach into our daily lives like our phones.
Most importantly, these items were never meant to determine how we communicate with others, especially our loved ones.
Smartphones have changed our lives forever. The device, by itself, is not mean to damage in any context. It is meant to improve our lives. But they way that ourselves and our children interact with smartphones could lead to trouble.
SMARTPHONE MISUSE COULD LEAD TO TROUBLE AT HOME AND SCHOOL
By 2019, half of 11 year old children in the United States had a smartphone. Can you imagine how much that number grew in one year?
Again, the problem is not the smartphone itself, it is our relationship with them and the consequences it may have.
It has already been proven that long smartphone exposure can lead to anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia. But it can also change the way children communicate with adults, their peers, and anyone else in the virtual and real world.
For example, there is something Social Psychologists call "deindividuated communication." It refers to the mask social media that the smartphone gives us.
Even if you have your real-life picture on Twitter, engaging through social media gives us a sense of "bravery" that we probably don't have in reality. It is easier for us to talk about certain things online than talking about them in person.
The classic example is a breakup scenario. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and there will probably anger, confusion, and crying. It is normal wanting to avoid uncomfortable scenarios.
As adults, we understand what is wrong breaking up with someone through WhatsApp. What is the equivalent for children? What do they not get?
For instance, whenever something "funny" happens at school, it may involve some kid being embarrassed. Maybe they fell. Maybe they got sick or were rejected. Maybe they fainted in the gym. What do the other kids do now? They take a picture or video of it.
Why? Most of them don't have an answer for that. It is an impulse. "I have to record this."
Let's go further. How do they face the issue if there are no adults around? How many children on your kid's school WhatsApp group do you think are mature enough to say that the action was wrong?
The anonymity of social media is strong - even with their names and pictures displayed.
Now take that anonymity to daily home interaction. Telling your child through a text that they have to do their homework before playing can result in "yeah, sure. Later."
They think they are in control. And, sadly, that is true. As long as you keep feeding their habits, you will be the one without control.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL DANGERS OF SMARTPHONES FOR CHILDREN
You already know this part. You are quite aware of the dangers of the online world. The most obvious ones at least.
They are susceptible to grooming techniques - making friends that are actually adults, being exposed to violent and pornographic content. The worst part? They have access to those thing 24/7.
Yet there is another threat many people to do not pay attention to - language development and communication skills.
Not everything can be answered with an emoji. Not every conversation can finish with "yeah, sure. Later." Some conversations simply cannot occur with screens in between.
There is an addictive component that drives them to be online and available at all times. I'm not asking you to understand that. I am asking you to be aware of your house's general rules and notice that the more you interact with your children through your mobile phone, the more emotionally alienated they will be.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY WITH YOUR CHILDREN
In my profession, I have worked with many parents worried about this smartphone issues at home. Through this, I have discovered interesting facts that I would like to share with you now.
Parent's do not know how to interact online with their kids. This is pretty normal - different generations, different interests, different eras.
Most parents give instructions instead of explaining why a particular task needs to be done immediately.
It's not the same sending a text to your kid saying, "please clean up your room, it has been a few weeks since you last did it and it's important to have it cleaned so you feel good in it and so finding things will be easier." than saying, "clean your room right now or you will not go out to play today."
It is especially different when you say the right thing face to face.
Communicating in person builds strong relationships. It diminishes the chances of children thinking they are in control of the situation. There is an immediate demand made by someone with power (you) and there is no possible alternative but to comply with it. There is no physical or physiological variable that makes it possible to avoid it (like smartphones).
Building an honest, open, and welcoming communication with our children leaves smartphones for the necessary means. This leads to feelings of worth, being cared for, improves the cooperation between the involved ones and helps you identify dangerous behaviors or scenarios.
A great example of this is how your child reacts to you when you ask them how school was.
In real life, they don't have time to think about an answer. They have no choice but to be honest. It is not really that hard to find out when a child is lying which means you can be more aware of whatever is going on for real.
If you only ask them these things on the phone, they can reduce the conversation to "okay" or "as always." As parents, we need more information, we need them to feel open and safe enough to talk to us.
If you think that being the cool parent and accepting the communication of important matters through the phone to get their attention, sorry my friend but that is the wrong approach.
Here are some tips to develop better communication with your kids:
Rules are rules.
We all want to be close to our kids but the fact is: rules are rules.
Your house should be the place where they feel safe, happy, understood, comfortable, and entertained. Alternatively, when an adult gives them a command, there can be a negotiation, but the adult should always have the final word.
Keep tracking of simple house rules like no shoes on, dishes being done by different family members each night, common areas remaining organized, no eating in the living room, or whatever rules you have at home should be respected at all time. Including, of course, phone hours.
These rules must apply to everyone, not just children. A good recommendation is having "family hours" which often are dinner and some weekend activities. Don't force it but make your child's voice matter. Listen to what they like to do and include those things in your family time.
Addiction is addiction.
To this point, we are all mostly addicted to our smartphones. As adults, we have difficulties separating from our phones because of work. We love being informed real-time of what is going on in the world. And, of course, we love our Instagram entertainment.
Children also have this kind of pressure - not liking your crush's photo quickly enough, missing out on the new music video, not showing your followers what you are doing.
I may sound silly to us but at that age, and in this country, that is a huge deal.
When talking to your kids about social media and smartphone addiction, don't patronize them. Don't act like you know everything. Instead, share your thoughts and emotions about it.
Create an environment where discussions can be made respectfully so they can see that it is not "an order," it is something that happens to both of you and needs to be handled to avoid negative outcomes.
Let them socialize for real.
Yes, we are still facing COVID-19 restrictions worldwide but that doesn't mean we need to keep encouraging online interactions over real-life ones. Especially children.
If they can go to school, they can play in the park. You are the one who needs to keep the mask on and insist on better hand hygiene to avoid getting ill.
Invite their friends over. Keep track of their close friends' parents to avoid possible infected members of the family.
This interaction is a very important aspect of a child's proper development. Please, don't take it lightly. It's not a "boomer thing" like the kids like to say these days, social media is changing the way we express ourselves. Constant exposure with little to no real social interaction could lead to becoming socially disabled for not knowing how to communicate properly without a phone.
To avoid turning your house into a military base, you must learn to explain yourself in terms your children can understand.
Don't give out orders all day. Explain the why to them. Yes, some things must be answered with "because I said so" but every single rule or command? Not so much.
Explain a maximum of three times why they need to do something (or stop doing it). By the fourth time, the order was not understood. Ask them why "they forgot" or didn't pay attention and make them think instead of act.
Promote the Conversation.
This may sound like a digital marketing tip but it is important. Create an open and safe space for them to talk to you. This doesn't mean, sadly, that they will always come running to you to tell you everything. You must be patient and promote the conversations.
Children, especially when they get closer to adolescence, will not want to talk to you as often. Instead of acting angry or hurt, understand that this is a phase and encourage them to keep on talking.
Use door opener statements like: "How about that!" or "Really? Now what?" makes them feel listened to.
This will be a hard task but, as adults, we can never get tired of doing what is best for our children.
As a final tip to having better communication with your kids, avoid unkind words and negative labels. Even if you think it's sweet to call them names, make sure it doesn't make them feel embarrassed, sad, or less important.