Dear Jenny Jackson
It’s getting harder and harder to get my 13-year-old son off the computer and Xbox. He seems to be getting more isolated from his friends. I’m not sure whether he’s lost interest, lost confidence or is just getting addicted to the computer. I’ve begged, pleaded and bribed, but it has little effect. He doesn’t even want to come to the dinner table anymore. If we go out as a family, all he wants to do is stay home on the computer. When he’s doing his homework he, of course, has Facebook up, so I’m never sure how much homework is being done and how much he’s chatting online. He quickly flicks from one to the other when I come past. I hope you can help me because I feel as though I’m losing him in cyberspace!
One of the things I suggest parents talk about with their teens is the idea of a balanced life – spending as much time face-to-face with friends and family as they do in front of technology. It’s easy for young people to get a bit nervous and out of practice, so expect them to continue practising their social skills. Joining the family for dinner and family activities is all part of the deal. Another aspect is balancing passive activities with active ones, such as sport and exercise. This is important for mental health because it’s fun. It’s with mates and it produces endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the body), and of course it’s important for physical health. Another good way to get kids away from the computer is to ensure you’re having fun as a family on a regular basis – road trips, mystery tours and other teen-friendly activities. Failing all else, teens will usually go along if pizza’s involved!
What we should steer clear of with technology is blanket bans – this is our young people’s worst fear. We need to appreciate that this generation gets a substantial part of their sense of belonging via their online relationships. But they do need to be able to function in both worlds – cyber and face-to-face. As long as we explain why we’re putting boundaries around our teen’s behaviour, they’re usually receptive to our rules, especially when we explain calmly and thoughtfully.
Homework and Facebook is an interesting issue. Michael Carr-Gregg, psychologist and author, quotes research that found 75 percent of young people say the internet doesn’t affect their study, but in fact those not using it did 88 percent more. So you might want to cruise past the computer now and then at homework time and make sure Facebook isn’t open on the bottom toolbar!
As with other responsibilities like chores, it’s a good idea to have a family rule. Try, “We do what we have to do before we do what we want to do”. Use of technology just becomes an extension of this rule – no
computer time until homework is done.
I reckon I’d just let things slide because I didn’t really know how to handle this. So when I got your advice and felt more confident, I enforced the rule about coming to the dinner table and it was much less of a problem than I’d expected. It seems that when I’m sure of myself, the kids are much more likely to go along with what I suggest. With the homework versus Facebook side of things, it’s pretty hard to police, but at least we’ve talked about whether he actually knows how much time he’s spending on each, and what he’s aiming for in terms of school marks. I think this might be an ongoing challenge.
We did talk about the idea of a balanced life and he said he finds it easier to talk to his mates online than face-to-face, but he seemed to get the idea of keeping on practising. He’s still playing rugby for school though, so that’s a plus. We have a couple of family members who are quite shy and we had a good conversation about them. My son came up with some really insightful comments about them. Overall, I think we’re heading in a more positive direction, now I just need to keep my eye on it.