How can I help my children learn to communicate with others in a healthy way? Cell phones and technology seem to be taking over the younger generations, with texting and chatting taking the place of face-to-face interactions. Texting and chatting seem to be things that can easily become addictive, or at the very least, extremely consuming, for people of all ages, but particularly for teens. It also seems that the nature of texting and chatting can easily bypass many of the natural constraints of relationships that would happen without access to such technology by creating a false sense of intimacy between people. Can you outline what age-appropriate, healthy interactions would be? Can you also suggest guidelines, expectations, rules, and approaches that would help ensure my children’s use of these technologies (phones, texting, chatting, etc.) will be healthy and appropriate and not interfere with them developing age-appropriate, REAL relationships? For example, at what age would you consider it appropriate for children to begin communicating with the opposite sex using phone calls, texting, or chatting?
The fact that you’re asking such a thoughtful question about your children’s social development tells me you won’t have a problem teaching your children how to navigate relationships in this complex media-saturated environment. While I don’t have a specific answer for all families, I can share some principles to help you guide your children toward healthier relationships with themselves and others.
First, I encourage you to clarify the lessons you want your children to learn as they grow up and make sure technology isn’t preventing those lessons from happening. Every new technology comes with gains and losses. Understanding the improvements and detriments is a critical part of intelligently adapting new technologies.
For example, it’s important to me that my children learn how to solve problems on their own. I don’t want to be too accessible to them so they don’t learn how to face a dilemma on their own and solve it. Consequently, we’ve chosen not to give our children their own mobile phones so they can learn how to think for themselves first instead of always calling mom and dad to solve their problems for them. One time, my 10 year-old son was riding home from school on his bike and his chain broke. Instead of calling us for a ride home, he figured out how to put the chain back on his bike and ride home. He felt so proud of himself for solving his problem and getting himself home.
Now, this may panic some modern parents who believe that children need constant access and supervision from adults so they don’t get hurt. However, I believe children need regular experiences where they can solve problems and face challenges so they know they have what it takes to succeed in life. I believe constant access to quick answers prevents them from thinking and reasoning on their own.
Once you figure out the lessons you want your children to learn, look and see if technology will facilitate or hinder those lessons. Some children can have their own mobile phone and still learn the lessons you want them to learn. Other children may benefit more from waiting to have regular access to that technology until they’ve mastered those lessons.
I also want my children to learn how to start a conversation face-to-face and engage with others. Granted, this is more challenging now because the very peers I want them to practice with often have their own heads buried in smart phones, but nevertheless, I still encourage and coach them on how this is done. I believe it’s critical for them to learn these lessons so they’ll be good employees, family members, and citizens.
One of the best resources I’ve read that helped me organize my thinking about this issue is a book called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, by Sherry Turkle. She’s an MIT professor who studies the relationship between humans and machines and how these relationships ultimately change us. She is hardly a Luddite and enthusiastically embraces all forms of technological advancement. However, she also speaks directly about how these technologies change the way we think, develop, and interact with one another.
Here are a couple of key points from her book:
“As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”
“Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, “I’m thinking about you,” or even for saying, “I love you,” but they don’t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.”
Many parents tell me they don’t want their children to be left out or they worry their children won’t know how to navigate the world we now live in if they don’t have access to devices. These are understandable concerns, as virtually every adolescent has their own phone or handheld device and no one wants their child to be left behind. Even if you choose to give your children mobile phones, make sure they are having more interpersonal experiences without them than with them.
You can start by making sure there are strict and consistent rules about technology in your home. For example, we have a rule in our family that meals are technology-free. Parents and children don’t answer phones or texts during meals, allowing for real connection to happen. Make sure your own use of devices isn’t interfering with your relationships with your children. Are you on your phone when you pick your kids up in the car? Does your constant checking of your phone get in the way of relationships in your family? Make sure you’re not so consumed by your own device that your children learn disconnection from you.
Children need to have access to emerging technologies so they can navigate the world. However, the learning curve for being a healthy person who can tolerate uncertainty, make decisions, be considerate of others, handle uncomfortable emotions, deal with boredom, control impulses, and other vital life lessons is much steeper than learning how to post a status update.
As you set rules about technology in your home, you are opening up opportunities for your children to develop in ways that will put them in touch with the Spirit of the Lord so they can know themselves and their purpose.
Understanding these truths about themselves will serve as a better guide than anything you can tell them. Elder M. Russell Ballad recently taught that “we all need time to ask ourselves questions or to have a regular personal interview with ourselves. We are often so busy and the world is so loud that it is difficult to hear the heavenly words be still, and know that I am God.’[i] He invited us to examine how much quiet time we have in our lives and challenged everyone to seek for more quiet time.[ii]
As worried as we all are about inappropriate content available to our young people, the bigger concern is that these devices will consume so much of our time and attention that we will disconnect from the true and living fountain of truth.
As you first plan for the relationship and personal lessons you want your children to learn, it will be easier to see how technology can be a tool to help them accomplish those goals. In some cases, technology will get in the way of accomplishing those goals. Your deliberate and intentional implementation of these lessons will help your children learn how to connect to themselves, others, and God in ways they might not do if left to their own devices.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Doctrine and Covenants 101:16
[ii] “Be Still and Know That I am God”, Elder M. Russell Ballard