May 15, 2024
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May 15, 2024
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In Defense of Complexity: Parenting in the Digital Age

In recent years I have had the opportunity to research and lecture on technology ownership trends and behaviors among Jewish pre-teens and teens and study their impact on functioning. During that time, I have had wonderful interactions with caring and concerned parents, school faculty, mental health professionals and community leaders on how to best address the ubiquitous presence of internet-based technology and social media in our lives with a specific focus on how to manage children’s use of technology. However, all too often, individuals and communities choose to take a simplistic approach to managing complex issues that may feel intuitively correct, but are ultimately faulty and ineffectual. In the words of Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson, “Methods that some of us thought were excellent and impeccable are turning out to be futile and ineffective.” The goal of this article to challenge some of the simplistic thinking about technology and promote a more thoughtful, realistic and strategic approach to managing a complex issue.

Simplistic: Rejection. Some individuals and communities seek to address technology by prohibiting it and denying the necessary and beneficial role it plays in our lives. Statements like “It is a terrible intrusion and we should eliminate it from our homes and our lives” are not uncommon. For the vast majority of people, the rejection strategy is neither realistic nor effective in promoting a healthy balance of existential satisfaction in both the near and long term. The reality is technology is not going anywhere, and with each passing day the need to have some degree of competency in using it becomes more necessary. Nearly every segment of the Orthodox community utilizes internet-based technology in some capacity, and nearly every respondent in our study* had regular access to the internet. In fact, more than 44 percent reported owning a smartphone and more than 81 percent reported owning a portable internet-capable device (Kindle, iPod, tablet etc) (Shapiro, 2017).

Simplistic: Filters. After rejection, the exclusive intervention that has been championed by communal leadership has been filters. Think 2012 Citi Field Asifa. A poster for the event explained that “A HUGE crisis demands a HUGE solution.” The solution? Filters. Never mind that there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of filters in reducing negative online behavior. In fact, filters, monitoring and other limitations in the absence of engaged parenting actually resulted in an increase in risky online behavior (Sasson and Mesch, 2014). It should also be noted that only 24 percent of the Jewish students in our study reported that all the devices available to them were filtered. Additionally, filters only address content and not the individual’s relationship with technology as a whole. Excessive screen time, compulsive device usage, emotional dependence, cyberbullying and digital distraction all have a negative impact on individual functioning, and filters do nothing for those issues. In other words, filters may change the device, but they don’t change the person.

Simplistic: Authoritarian Parenting. This approach is most commonly witnessed through parental soundbites like, “My child does not own a device and I will not allow them to have one. I don’t care what everyone else is doing.” Oftentimes such statements are followed by, “If everyone were jumping off the Empire State Building…” There are a number of problems with this approach. (1) Children do not live in a vacuum. There are social norms that create consequences for not having a device that may very well exceed the consequences of having a device. In many cases, where the parenting is inconsistent with the social norms, children act out in ways that include but are not limited to purchasing devices without their parents’ knowledge. (2) Children have access, even if they don’t own a device. The above-mentioned study, in addition to the overall high rates of device ownership (think of your old iPhone that your children have taken possession of) also found that virtually no one did not have access to the internet. (3) Children will eventually own a device. A definitive statement like “does not” or “will not” is authoritarian in nature and leaves very little room for a healthy dialogue about technology ownership. Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Yaffe (2000) identifies authoritarian parenting as negatively correlating with psychological well-being and student achievement. If we want our children to succeed, socially and emotionally, finding a healthy balance of mutual reciprocity is critical.

Perhaps the most frequent question I get is at what age to get a device for a child. The answer is not simple and is highly dependent on communal norms. In some communities it’s middle school, in some it’s high school and in some it’s post-high school. But at some point it will happen and as we move forward, the future device ownership is likely to occur at younger and younger ages. More important than the age at which a child gets a device is the process by which they get the device and the parental follow-up during ownership. Research suggests that parents speaking with their children about safe and responsible ways of using technology and having set rules and guidelines at home have the most significant impact on reducing negative behavior online (Shapiro, 2017).

So, what are we to do? The first step is to change our paradigm. We live in a time of innovation, and technology is not all bad and it is not all good; parenting in the age of technology is not simple, it is complex. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of the Orthodox Union notes, “Any invention that we see as a benefit to society was once an upstart disruption to the status quo.” We need to stop with the categorical and dogmatic statements that exclude the realities that we live in and seek to raise healthy children who can maximize the tremendous opportunities that technology offers us.

In a recent article by Katie Davis, Emily Weinstein and Howard Gardner, they warn, “Beware of the simplistic narratives.” Rhetoric, sound bites and the failure to recognize the complex reality of the digital world our children are growing into set the stage for ineffective and unhealthy outcomes. Once we recognize the complexity of it and that there is no magic pill and no simple answer to managing our children’s technology, we can take a thoughtful, deliberative and realistic approach to navigating the digital age.

Complex: Understanding the social milieu. When a child states “but everyone has a,” it may or may not be accurate. Identifying whether the social norms call for device ownership, social media membership, app participation or screen-time engagement is not a simple task. Speak to other parents. Do your research and even postpone when reasonable. Most importantly, make informed decisions that take into account the social norms. While the baseline approach of postponing technology ownership and reducing screen time and digital consumption is a reasonable strategy, it needs to be done within the context of the children’s social experience. If you are uncomfortable with the social expectations of your child’s environment, either reevaluate the goodness of fit or seek to change climate. Groups like MUST (Mothers United to Stall Technology) are doing a great job postponing technology ownership by influencing the social norms one grade at a time.

Complex: Assessing your child’s relationship with technology. In addition to the social context, understanding your child’s relationship with technology will also go a long way in developing effective strategies. Just like virtually every other developmental experience, not every child responds to technology engagement in the same way and despite the rhetoric, social media does not inherently make people miserable. In fact, most adolescents report “social media use as a predominantly positive experience” (Weinstein, 2017) and more than half of the students in our study reported positive experiences like having “spent more time connecting with family and friends” as a result of internet-based technology. On the other hand, 50 percent of teens feel “addicted” to their devices (Common Sense Media, 2017). Psychology of Popular Media Culture identifies the following statements that, if true, might indicate your child has an unhealthy relationship with technology:

It is hard for my child to stop using screen media;

When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better;

My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family;

The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing;

My child sneaks using screen media.

Complex: Perspective taking. Digital technology and social media either is already or will in the near future take a more prominent role in the lives of our children than in our own and seeking to understand the digital experience from their perspective as digital natives rather than from our own digital immigrant perspectives will help them to make healthy and responsible decisions when it comes to technology. In the words of Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson, shared by thousands via social media, we need to “Talk to them. Listen to them. Communicate with them. Go out of your space and into their space. Spend time with them on their terms, not on your terms.”

Complex: Authoritative Parenting. When it comes to technology (and most everything else), a consistent, balanced and communicative parenting style; a genuine desire to understand your child’s needs and experience; and clear rules, guidelines and expectations will yield the best results. Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Yaffe (2000), cites numerous sources on the extensive benefits of authoritative parents (who are both demanding and responsive to their children) as opposed to authoritarian (demanding but unresponsive) parents and permissive parents. The standards and expectations of technology engagement should be an ongoing dialogue between parents and children and should begin well before the children own a device.

In conclusion, Davis, Weinstein and Gardner (2017) got it right by warning us to “beware of simplistic narratives.” As long as we are invested in simplistic approaches to complex issues, we will not only fail to maximize the opportunities before us, but more likely fall into the negative tendencies we are trying to avoid. When it comes to technology, there is no intervention more powerful than engaged parenting that includes mutual reciprocity, parental social support, communication and promoting autonomy (Yaffe, 2000), as well educational strategies that teach digital responsibility. Although not as simple as a filter, through this process we can help our children become future ready and the well-adjusted adults we hope for them to be.

*Study data was collected in 2016 and 2017 and includes 1509 students (759 boys, 750 girls) grades 6-12 from Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and metro New York and New Jersey. Forty-six percent Orthodox, 33 percent Modern Orthodox, 16 percent Chabad, 5 percent Other.

By Dr. Eli Shapiro

Dr. Eli Shapiro is a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in education and specialists certificate in Jewish educational leadership. He is the creator and director of The Digital Citizenship Project.

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