I’ve been thinking about recent discussion and comments concerning our kids’ online time. They text, chat, spend hours on Facebook. Frankly – who knows what they’re doing some of the time.
And I’ve been considering the remarks that many of us have made about our own (possibly excessive) use of our communication tools and social networks.
I’m not a sociologist, or a psychologist, but consider this:
- Time online is symptomatic of other things going on in our society.
- It is also a powerful and far-reaching solution for both adults and teens, to a variety of challenges.
- It’s problematic when it is excessive, or replaces face-to-face experience altogether.
In recent discussions around my daily plate of crazy, one dad (from DadsHouseBlog) commented that his teen daughter uses Facebook but still maintains strong friendships. From reading his posts and other remarks, his own experience with the Internet – dating, for example – has been a mixed bag. Like life. And when his kids are around, he puts the laptop and cell phone away. They talk, and do things together.
Another almighty dad, Keith, has much younger children. As a stay-at-home father and homeschooling parent, he’s anticipating the problems on the horizon (smart man), and probably wondering how he will handle the temptations to chat, text, IM, and so on, in the future.
These are responsible adults, willing to look at their own behaviors and the example they set, in order to achieve a healthy balance of online and face time.
Our home: Online usage
I have no doubt that “throw away relationships” are real in the teen world, fostered by quick-to-know-you, quick-to-dismiss-you chatting, chasing, and moving on to the next person.
But do you remember your own teenage experience? Before cell phones and home computers and PDAs? Remember all the hours spent on the telephone, or passing notes in homeroom?
Teen relationships form fast, crumble quickly, and reconfigure themselves over and over again as adolescents undergo dramatic changes in development. Add peer pressure and stress, and this just seems normal.
Growing and outgrowing
Teens want to shake off one persona, and try another on for size. And then another after that. Isn’t this what we do post-divorce, as we live a kind of renewed adolescence?
It’s typical (and healthy) for adolescents to try out new “selves.” Didn’t you? Of course they outgrow old friends, court new ones, discard them, and circle back to one or two they knew before. This happens as shifting interests, a changing physique, and new desires spur them on to take risks and try out their wings.
Teens change quickly and are hyper-sensitive; their alliances and relationships shift rapidly as a result.
- Isn’t this the way it was for us when we were teens?
- Are we simply less comfortable with the power and reach of the online universe?
- Isn’t this the millennial face on typical adolescent behaviors?
My kids spend a lot of time online, including on Facebook. They also learn, create, share, study, and stay in touch with friends and family who are far away, through these same technologies. And they certainly know how to sustain real friendships.
When I was a teenager, dramas played out over the telephone. “She did this, he did that, can you believe they… ?” Hours of it, sometimes into the night, until a parent would yell “Get off the damn phone and do your homework or go to sleep!”
The behavior was the same; the tool was different.
I also remember my mother carrying on non-stop about the amount of television that I watched. She seemed to think that it would mutilate my imagination, or steal time from my studies.
What she didn’t realize was that “television technology” was part escape, part learning, part imagination-inspiring. It didn’t replace books or friendships; it enhanced my view, broadened my exposure, and soothed a sometimes difficult home life.
I still watch a lot of television. But I also read, and write, and research with real books as well as reading, writing, and researching online which saves me time and money in an overcrowded schedule with budget constraints.
But last year, in preparation for writing an article, there was something I needed to learn that I knew couldn’t be done online. It took planning, money, a friend’s guestroom and a plane ticket, but I left technology behind and flew 600 miles to spend three days in front of magnificent works of art – in person.
The inability to travel is yet one more reason why online connections are so helpful in my life – and in my kids’ lives.
I have an overseas interview I need to conduct in the next two months. There’s no way I can afford the trip. I’ll conduct the interview, in two parts, over Skype. It’s not ideal, but it’s cost-effective.
My sons and I can stay in touch with friends and family regardless of where they live. Now, my college-aged son can chat with me on Skype as much as he likes, thanks to his cell phone, software, and web cams technology.
Escape into an online universe is certainly a response to social issues. We all know that, just as we know our online communities offer distraction, humor, and comfort. Nonetheless, there’s no denying:t
- The world is more competitive; our kids are stressed
- It takes two parents working (generally) to be able to make ends meet; money is tight everywhere (more stress)
- Divorced and blended families mean complex logistics; technology conveniences become necessities
- Many of us are older parents; we’re tired by the time our kids are tweens and teens; activities are more of a struggle
- We’re the Sandwich generation; caught between raising our children, and caring for aging parents; more stress (do more with less), and painful, as written about by one very courageous Silicon Valley mom.
- The economy is causing losses on every front; we’re fighting for our dreams, and our kids’ dreams
- Many of us “medicate” – just to get through. And my dating experiences with men who are on anti-depressants are surely not isolated incidents.
- Internet dating is as common now as stopping by a bar for a quick drink and hook-up was in the 80s. For adults – too often – it gives us the sense that relationships are disposable. Miss one; there will be another.
In a challenging world, the online options available offer a breadth of solutions to kids and adults alike.
As a long-term solo parent, I was often stuck at home whether I wanted to be or not. There wasn’t money for babysitters, or a network to give me a break. And I was hustling to make a buck, taking every project I could and working long hours – online – while full-time parenting.
As for my kids, with a tight budget and much of my time spent working, although I was home, they had to do without activities many of their friends were able to enjoy. Time online gave them alternative ways to connect, to discover, to create, and to “play.”
The online world has filled otherwise lonely hours with plenty to learn, the possibility of making human connections, a means to meet potential dates, and ultimately, to establish real, lasting, face-to-face friendships – many of which are maintained through online tools, the telephone, email and real mail.
As for friends, there were a few, and they were wonderful to the extent it was possible. But as I described recently, many of the women in my world have walked away, or drifted away, as I did from them. Not intentionally.
The online world can become a support system, providing us everything from a few hours escape to babysitting, anonymous help at no cost, special interest communities that we couldn’t otherwise access, methods for learning, and even the beginnings of love.
Like the telephone and television that came before, we need to exercise moderation and balance. Online time need not replace human connection. It can expand its reach, furnishing sophisticated means for learning, staying in touch, exploring, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, just being kids – and just being ourselves.
Are there potentially more dangers? Of course. So we need to pay attention, monitor and moderate behaviors, and enjoy the advantages of these technology tools which are, for some of us, a lifeline.
Like anything else – time online requires a level head and a mature hand; we need to manage it, and not the other way around.
Be sure to check out what FRONTLINE’s Digital Nation has to say on this subject. Informative video clips.