As soon as the topic of tech use comes up, a high school student named Lisa thrusts her hand into the air, nearly leaping out of her seat. "She's always on her phone when I want to talk to her," Lisa says. "Even when she's not doing work, she's only ever watching YouTube or Netflix. I wish I could have more of a relationship with her, but it's hard when so much of her 'free time' is 'phone time.' I just don't know how to get close to her."
Lisa is not talking about a friend. She's talking about her mother.
We parents focus a lot on how smartphones affect our kids. What many of us don't know is that children worry about their parents' use of technology as well. Children learn early that their parents are fixated on their laptops and phones—and that it can be hard to compete for their parents' attention and time when mom or dad is using the screen "for work."
In our work at My Digital Tat2, the non-profit we co-founded to foster kinder online cultures through youth-centered education, we have spoken to children from hundreds of elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area to understand how they navigate social media and the digital world. Kids as young as eight tell us, "My mom is always texting under the table at dinner and she thinks I don't know," and "My dad always has his phone out because he says he needs it for work."
These children feel sad, frustrated, or lonely when technology use creates a wall between them and their parents. And from a child's perspective, it can feel like a double-standard when they are scolded for being on their phones too much, but it's OK for parents to take work calls or check their email whenever.
Many of our conversations with children have shown us that behavior is "caught," not taught. One of the best ways to teach our children how to mindfully, critically engage with technology is to model those behaviors.
This can be as simple as putting your phone away at the dinner table, turning off your notifications in the evenings, charging your devices outside your room at night, and making time to connect as a family. Sometimes this can mean making "screentime" into bonding time by watching Netflix together for a family movie night. Sometimes this can look like unplugging together just to unwind and be present with one another.
It's important to recognize that, as parents, we probably won't be able to keep up with the latest slang, the hottest games, or how to use the new Snapchat Maps update. But we can help our children make informed decisions about their tech usage by starting the conversation and helping them think about their relation to the world around them. Ask them about their favorite YouTubers, the videos they like to watch, or whatever drama is unfolding in the comments sections. Ask them about the Snapchat filters they like and the content they like to send to their friends. Ask them how they feel when navigating different online communities, and help them vocalize their experiences.
If we are willing to engage with our children about their digital world and listen with an open mind, we can not only have a richer understanding of their lives but also make sure they feel comfortable coming to us as a resource if they encounter something distressing or uncomfortable.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Generation Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Are Gen Z'ers That Different From Gen X'ers?
Generational analysis can be enlightening—but it can also be facile and sensationalistic. Read more
Why We Can't Judge Generation Z by the Standards of Previous Generations
I used to worry about this allegedly cosseted generation. Then came the shootings in Parkland, and I began to see another side of these young people that humbles me. Read more
Generation Z Is Far More Nuanced About Tech Than Its Predecessors
Take some time to talk with the young adults in your life about recent technological changes. Their responses may surprise you. Read more
Parents' Phone Use Is Taking a Toll on Their Children's Development
I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it. Read more