It is universal truth that children, especially adolescent children, have a secret life, insulated from the protective eyes of parents. As long as the secret life involves Goth make-up during slumber parties, Mills and Boons, and harmless crushes on celebrities, the parent may rest easy, for such a secret is worth preserving. But when the parent loses sleep is when she hears of secret lives of teenagers being snuffed out brutally by the secret itself. Such as the shocking case of Nicole Lovell, whose promise of a long and happy life, was heartlessly cut off by a dark secret that need have never been.
When such tragedies strike, the natural parental instinct is to brand social media as pure evil and ban it from the entire zip code, but is that the solution, or even judicious perception? It may be easy for a digital immigrant to consider social media as being an extra fitting to "life", but to the digital native, who was born surrounded by beeping monitors, digital life IS life. This is perhaps the newest form of generation gap that has ever existed, and threatens to widen with every case of Nicole Lovell.
Adolescence is a natural age of rebellion. Our own adolescent transgressions were dominated by movies, music, slang and (what seem now to be) hopeless hairstyles. The variables of today include technological touch points, which baffles the older generation like never before, by its pervasiveness and youth. In a way the digital age is in its youth too, dealing with two sets of intertwined adolescence is nothing short of an overflowing cup to the parent.
The only truth that offers hope is that despite the ever-present frustrations of parents and rebellion of the teen, humanity has survived for millions of years and the digital age need not be its Waterloo. The saving grace is that the parent herself is not particularly ignorant of the digital revolution; after all, where would she be without online PTA meetings and tiger-parenting Whatsapp groups that swap test papers and grades, if only to one-up the other?
The only solution, which all of us know, but can't really realize, is engagement. The difficulty in realizing it arises from the ignorance of boundaries. Where lies the line between engagement and interference? Is it hovering behind the teen as she sails the treacherous seas of digital socialization, or is it keeping an eye on the browsing history to see where her digital feet have trespassed? How much of verbal guidance and advice will the teen even get into her system without being brushed off as "neurotic crap"?
The best route to set boundaries is to set examples. Says Lakshmi, a parent and co-author of this piece, "I am a voracious reader, not little because I was surrounded by books that my parents voraciously read when I was a toddler, and my tweenager carries the tradition forward. In similar vein, the longer I am with my laptop (even if writing a self-help essay like this one), the longer my child spends on her computer, doing hopefully harmless stuff, but how could I be sure unless I got off my laptop and talked to her?"
Balance is the state we seek for our children, but the balance does not involve subtracting technology as much as adding personal touches. But most importantly, such a balance cannot be achieved in a day, more so in a day that belongs to the hormone-raging period of the child's life. It must start early. Perhaps as early as when the baby started focusing on moving pictures on a glowing screen. Baby talk, peek-a-boos and cuddling need not be replaced by digital engagement as they grow, but transition into consistent human-to-human interactions that are augmented by digital activities, and not the other way around.
The fast pace age of competition can overwhelm and lead the way to expedient pleasures that the digital age is expert at providing. It is important for the parent to realize that it is ok to have a slow paced life, relaxation is not the opposite of success and success as seen by others and happiness as seen by oneself need not be the same thing. This enlightenment is an essential prerequisite to establishing balance in the young, because by itself, youth and balance are often antonyms, and unless the parent naturally exudes the realization, the young would never even perceive the need for balance against the ravages of biochemicals flowing through their blood stream.
Swearing off technology is not a smart route to take, and it certainly helps to make technology your alley. While the rap-battle between Hermoine Granger and Annabeth Chase, which your child composed and posted in her blog, may not resonate with your own perception of literature, it helps to be part of the show, if only to make the child feel the connection. Such belonging will foster more trust between the parent and child and less risky secrets between them. Being aware of and part of the youth culture can in fact make the parent feel younger at heart too, a win-win situation in a potentially explosive scenario. Such engagement can make the boundary seem reasonable to the child as well.
More than anything else, the parent must remember that the path of adolescence may not be the one that she herself walked a few decades ago, but it is merely transposed. The potholes, pitfalls and pithy comebacks may appear different, but they are merely different avatars of the potholes and pitfalls of yore. A liberal dose of mental flexibility is essential to every parent of a child who is or will soon be stepping into the whirlpool of adolescence. Empathy and compassion may be hard to come by in the digital era, but without them, the battle of the ages could turn out to be catastrophic in the long run.
In fact, perhaps rephrasing the Dalai Lama's sentiment, "Love and Compassion are necessities, not luxuries, for without them, humanity cannot survive," especially in the digital age.
Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a parent and Mobicip blogger who researches and writes about the challenges of balancing parenting, education, and technology.
Mobicip offers simple and reliable parental controls for computers, tablets and smartphones. Learn more at www.mobicip.com.