Today's texting teenagers learn less than ideal habits from their email-obsessed parents.
You want horror stories about modern digital technology and its effect on society? There’s the teenagers who sleep with their phones. The girl who texts in the shower using a plastic bag. The constant emailing and posting of Facebook updates during breakfast and dinner.
Society can’t escape unscathed by the emergence of a generation of children who are using mobile phones long before they had drivers licences, and can regularly send upwards of 3,000 text messages a month.
But what can their parents do to help, when they themselves are glued to their iPhones or facing a “work-life blur” thanks to the Blackberry, allowing the invisible hand of the office to reach into the evenings and weekends?
Every once in a while, put your damn phone down and interact with human beings.
A more nuanced version came from Sherry Turkle, a social science professor at MIT who has spent years following teenagers and their use of new and social media.
Turkle is concerned that teenagers’ reliance on their phones and social media may leave them unable to converse effectively, to develop empathy and – just as importantly – cope with being alone or with awkward social situations by “bailing out” via their cell phones.
But where do teenagers learn their behaviour? From their parents, says Turkle:
It’s the parents who are texting while driving, it’s the parents who are texting at dinner.
So it’s the parents who are teaching their children that, essentially, they are OK with having dinner with texting.
It’s parents who are modelling behaviour that it’s OK to put people on pause.
That childhood introduction to the constant intrusion of digital devices starts in infancy, with what Turkle called “breastfeeding while texting”.
The answer, according to Turkle, is for parents to restrain themselves: “At school pick-up, if your child is coming out, that’s not the time to take that last call,” she says.
Parents can also set rules about where digital media is used in the household, establishing what she calls “sacred spaces” in the kitchen or bedrooms where texting or emailing is banned. “It sounds so simple but many families can’t do that,” she says.
It’s also important for parents to give themselves time with their children with both parties putting aside their Blackberry or iPhone – and making it clear why.
Don’t say it when they are 13 or 14, say it when they are 8, 9 or 10 – say, it’s very important this time I have with you. You can’t introduce that notion when they are 14.
Talking and listening to children without their phones getting in the way is important for parents: “We’re the last generation of parents who know how precious that information is.”
Turkle’s research – in her new book, Alone Together – offers two insights that contradict the usual view of today’s teenagers as “digital natives”, able to cope seamlessly with the attention-seeking demands of modern media.
One is that the teenagers she surveyed felt under pressure to perform on arenas such as Facebook, and that they would take “Facebook holidays” to avoid perfomance anxiety.
The other is that the digital generation is far more concerned about their privacy online than Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe – the Facebook founder declaring that privacy was no longer a “social norm”.
“Teenagers are anxious about privacy,” says Turkle, and that they regularly wonder if their teachers, parents or even the police can see what they post online.
The better news, according to Turkle, is that society’s use of phones and tablets is still work in progress: “Relax, it’s young, it’s in its baby days.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010