Jason Reitman's new film Men, Women & Children takes a somber yet hopeful swipe (aptly a finger swipe) at the risks and roles of digital access (websites, social media, smartphones and online games) in a humanity hungry to rediscover its connections, meaning and feelings. This eerily moving film, really a film about people, can't pass up an exploration of the still, to many, mysterious trope of digital access.
While the existential questions may be a bit heavy and heady for now, maybe it's time to get a toe hold on the mysteries of digital access, connections and limits. Without going full-spoiler, Men, Women & Children is riddled with teens neck deep in digital media and connectivity, and parents quietly terrified, confused and, at least, suspicious of these millennial platforms and gadgets. In the film, as in "RL" (real life), frustrated and fearful parents use control and confiscation to shut down sites, pull plugs and delete accounts.
While I was working with students in the SheKnows Hatch initiative on teen/parent digital literacy, one edgy and prescient middle-schooler noted, "It’s crazy that my mom is trying to control something she doesn't even understand." Out of the mouths of teens. It's not really crazy. It totally makes sense. It's new, and confusing and feels out of our control; so we can just shut it down. Sound familiar? The printing press? Galileo? Rock 'n' roll? Spooky. Shut 'em down.
Before pulling plugs, deleting files for their own good and irreparably branding yourself a reactive fuddy-duddy, let me suggest a protocol borrowed from psychiatric training, under the umbrella of "don't just do something; stand there" (stand and evaluate, diagnose and plan before you act).
We are not living in Matrix times... yet. Your child does not have a port in their neck or genes coding for code. Their genetic, emotional and social needs for connection, love and reassurance both precede and trump any souped-up digital platform. Get to understand them, empathize with them and learn what the sites, games and platforms mean to their young psyches. Seeing and feeling the experiences through them will take out the alienation and sense of threat. And the time spent sharing is just good old-fashioned bonding, which, incidentally, may decrease their interest or need for digital exploration.
Your amazing child doesn't travel in an angelic vacuum, or even an idealized family. They bump up against classmates, peers, random strangers, trends, cultural mores, etc. Less control for you, thus more anxiety and, possibly, more reactive controls. Ouch. Slow down and explore and learn their cultural norms. How much do they, their peer groups, people on TV, you, use digital tech? Maybe their use is normative and healthy for their generation, culture and values.You can't call something crazy or dangerous unless you have a normal, and you can't cry "too much" until you understand what's enough.
Once you have a grip on your child's psyche, understanding of digital, and digital use, in relation to a cultural backdrop of digital use, you can keep an eye out for changes and trends. Are they playing more games, going in deep, isolating? Are they online more, chatting, posting, browsing? Are we slipping back down the slope to spooky? Not quite yet. As they say, "It ain't a problem 'til it's a problem." Something can't really be called pathological, sick or an addiction until it hits a point of diminished returns and interference with the activities of a healthy, balanced life. So there are no fast rules on how much is enough or too much. The acid test is, is your child happy (ish, for teens) and productive, or are the wheels creaking off the bus?
This is the front end of a grip on understanding and empathizing with your child's digital endeavors. File it under "prevention is the best medicine." Listening, understanding, sharing and guiding will allay your anxieties and hedge most of the risks of them going south on the digital grid. For those that slip through, dealing with digital dependence, ups and downs and abuse is another lesson.
Photo credit: KidStock/Getty Images
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