Have you heard about the latest app – The Blue Whale Challenge? If you haven’t, you need to read this.
The Internet and related tech, especially apps and gaming, are dangerous, and sometimes potentially lethal, for children when not fully monitored. I tell parents in my office, put this largely unknown, fast-moving world of the information age into context. Would you put your twelve year-old behind the wheel of a car and let them drive on the highway? A parent I know put it this way: It’s like an unchartered forest. I wouldn’t let my child wander around in there unsupervised, let alone without a compass and the tools to survive should something bad happen!
So, monitor screens at all times. Know what apps are on your child’s devices. Snoop at will on your young teen’s social media as a reasonable condition for them having the privilege of such powerful technology. Tell them up front, for a while until I know you can handle it, I’ll be needing full access to what you’re doing. I’ll back off in time, but only if you show you can manage this responsibly. If you comply, great, if not, the devices and data plan gets stopped.
When your kids complain that they are the only kids in the universe who don’t have a game, app, or device, just smile, never explain yourself or justify what you have to do to be the best parent you can be. They know deep down you have their back and are doing right by them. And when other parents suggest it’s the norm to have phones or a necessity to keep up a “normal” or “healthy” social, smile again, and politely ignore these ridiculous, follow-the-herd statements.
Sound like a broken record? Being ignored? It may be that you are using outdated techniques to raise your children.
Kids change. So should your parenting approach.
By seven or eight, switch from what I call an Outside-In Approach to an Inside-Out Approach. In other words, move from purely environmental management where parents/teachers impose external directions and behavior techniques (such as time-outs and sticker charts), to a more internal approach. This capitalizes on the amazing developmental changes emerging in the brains of kids around puberty. Built into your developing teen is the software to think for themselves. We need to seize that opportunity. And stop reminding, worrying, hovering.
Put it on them. Ask them to help you solve the problems you are seeing.
Step 1: Start with the setup.
“I need some help. You’re getting older and smarter. Don’t think of me as your mom or dad right now (or as your teacher or coach) but lets talk more as equals. It’s been a long time since I’ve been your age. I forget what it’s like. Tell me what it’s like for you – I promise I won’t lecture or disapprove or criticize. I need to hear what you think.”
Step 2: Ask them to think through hypotheticals.
“What would say if a friend needed and asked for your help to stay focused on their work, how could they get along better with their parents, learn to wait on screens until after things got done? How can you encourage other kids to try and think more for themselves and not follow the crowd?”
It may not work the first time, maybe not the second, but keep trying this Inside-Out Approach. Another trick is to move these discussions outdoors, take a walk, shoot hoops while talking, or get someplace that feels more neutral and where you’re less likely to fall into older parenting habits.
The goal is to promote more accurate self-awareness, independence, motivation to move oneself into better situations, and to start using one’s own decision-making skills effectively. These are the hallmarks off what we strive for as mature, independent adults. They are the higher cortical strengths that are available to all, but can’t fully develop unless nurtured through the teens and early twenties.
Don’t be fooled by studies telling you to push your preschooler too fast and early. We’ve seen these studies before. They don’t tell the whole story. Play is the vehicle for development of the brain. It’s natural learning, and built into the neurological software of all children. We know from years of studies that rushing kids makes them peak early and turns them into performers who only look good – maybe test good – but don’t think for themselves and aren’t as self-motivated. Worse, many develop symptoms of stressed.
We need to prepare children to be creative, fluid, and invested problem-solvers and to love learning for what it really is: an exhilarating exploration of the mind.
Let very young young kids start on the road to knowledge through play!
Fatigue, stress, and anxiety are related to heavy screen exposure. Screens grab our thoughts and pump up our emotions. There’s nonstop social media, advertisements, 24/7 news, higher expectations to work at home on mobile devices, and binging on endless entertainment. These digital demands compete for our precious, limited brain space. They mess with our emotions. The fix is to take a moment or two and rest your brain. Shut down the screens and practice mindfulness. Think of only one thing and stay in the now. Mindfulness helps you focus, become better at tuning out unwanted distractions, improves memory, lowers blood pressure, it may even boost your immune system. And get moving, outdoors preferable, even for a few minutes through out they day!
Even if you aren’t a Netflix subscriber, you have probably heard about the new series 13 Reasons Why. The series concerns a teenage girl who is raped and commits suicide. As a mental health expert, I have significant concerns about the popularity of this show among teens.
Artistic license aside, from a teenage brain perspective, here are two main problems I have with the show as a psychologist.
First, most Netflix shows are binge-watched because all shows are available at once. Most teens will watch one episode right after the other. Why does this matter? Without a week (or even a few days) between episodes, there’s less opportunity for the adolescent brain to digest the graphic content of suicide, to discuss the content with others, or allow ample time for their more logical brain centers to dive in and put the highly charged emotional material into context. To me, this is the equivalent of an overdose of highly disturbing material. I sincerely hope this series does not nudge kids on the edge of suicide to take that horrific step, which is happening with greater frequency these days across the nation.
Second, there’s no post-episode service message and hotline (at least several teens have reported to me they haven’t seen one). Something has to be addressed at each episode and be conspicuous.
If the series makes people more aware of suicide among our young children and teens, that would have great benefit. But without some structure in place for this to happen, I fear kids will be left to their own devices to make sense of this. Keep in mind, the majority of young people watch these shows alone on laptops.
A deeper discussion among parents, teachers, educational leaders, politicians and clergy is required to ensure that teenage suicide remains in the realm of fiction instead of the all too common occurrence that it has become.
The first three seconds matter. You can’t get them back. Everyone forms first, strong opinions in these fleeting moments.
So, all young children need to learn greeting basics. Practice them constantly with your children.
In my office, when first meeting a child, I know which parents have (and which haven’t) spent time training their kids on the greeting basics. The kids who get these simple steps down early, I’ve observed, go on to be happier, make more friends, handle new social situations more easily, aren’t as self-conscious, and act more confidently.
Colleges, despite stated goals, are selecting high performers, not leaders. Grade point averages and résumés are about standing out from the pack, not truly leading it. Emphasizing these criteria promotes unhealthy, Type-A behaviors in high schoolers who push themselves out of fear of rejection. We should define leadership more thoughtfully.
In my work with young men, I see leadership at pivotal moments that demand a courageous response. Facing an unfair coach. Confronting a bully. Sticking by a friend who comes out to them about his sexual identity. At pivotal moments these boys, often shy and unassuming, find their voice. They stand up for what matters to them, but not in a self-promoting way. They demonstrate a quiet resolve that has the power to help others see things differently.
Rosa Parks comes up frequently in office discussions, in addition to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Lincoln. Boys I talk with also admire celebrities as varied as Derek Jeter and Ellen DeGeneres.
The boys I know with leadership potential are passionate yet emotionally measured, self-reflective and able to position themselves as learners. They don’t idealize popularity and can step outside social media and trends to think for themselves. They don’t showboat or pad their online profiles. And like the Rosa Parkses of the world, they don’t stand out until they stand up, leading decisively at pivotal moments of their choosing.
Is your son’s obsession with wearing superhero shirts and costumes becoming a problem? Is he pushing to wear these clothes at school?
Boys, just like girls, need to dress up. Once a year at Halloween doesn’t cut it. Nor does wearing athletic uniforms or Boy Scout uniforms alone help them to fantasize and explore themes of power in healthy ways. Interestingly, teenage boys and young men are starting to wear these superhero shirts more often, usually at the gym, when out for a run, and casually hanging with friends. Men in their thirties and forties are expanding their wardrobes to include wearing more fun clothing, such as outrageously colored socks and ties.
One student I work with told me he feels more comfortable and more secure handling the social and academic pressures of high school wearing his superhero shirt beneath another shirt or sweatshirt. On Fridays, which is a creative dress day at his school, he can wear a superhero hoodie with cape. His public school is large with many many different types of kids and has a very healthy open, inclusive culture. It’s never been a problem and it seems the students (and teachers) can’t wait for Fridays!
But maybe there are times when the desire for wearing superhero clothing grows into an obsession. If you are concerned, try this technique. Set up a rule that your son wears the superhero shirt only on certain days of the week. Perhaps start with Monday, Wednesday, and Friday being “superhero” shirt days, but Tuesday and Thursday aren’t. Then reverse it, so that only two days a week are allowed. Then move it to one day a week – Fridays is good because it trains a child to hold back the urge all school week and gains control over it.
Boys and young men – in fact all people – need to embrace something (fantasy-wise or through positive imagination) that empowers them, and makes them feel safe in a world that feels more and more out of control these days. Keep in mind these simple rituals serve a larger psychological purpose for everyone. We’re all feeling rushed, sidelined by high demands, and worry a lot of about keeping up.
Maybe it’s time we adults play dress up too!
Think of any common tool: a hammer, a knife, or a compass. When used properly, tools yield amazing results. You can build something, carve a piece wood, or find your way home. Digital tools should be no different. They should help boys grow their minds. They should help them gain knowledge and facilitate new ways of seeing the world. Sounds great but there’s a problem. Unlike a hammer, digital tools intrude into the mind. They evoke strong emotions. They tamper with neurological reward systems. Some who study addiction are now saying they can hijack the brain. At the very least, they are designed to keep people’s attention for as long as humanly possible. Boys seem to be the most susceptible.
Over the years, I’ve observed a disturbing trend. It is also happening at the national level. Boys (and young men) have become the heaviest screen users. When you break down where their attention goes, you see that they spend more and more of their waking day on digital, high-tech devices. Some of that time is for school; but mostly it’s for entertainment and, as many have told me, “when there’s nothing better to do.” They build endless virtual worlds on “Minecraft.” They spend endless hours achieving scores on games like “Madden NFL.” As the hours rack up, they are losing ground in building and achieving real-life thinking skills.
Case in point. Young men in the US are seriously falling behind educationally. It started sometime in the early 1980’s, when college acceptance rates had reached the same levels for men and women. It took women many years to get to that achievement, to break down barriers, and it was long overdue. But since the early 1980’s, women have continued to make gains, while the acceptance rates for young men decline. That’s not the only problem. Many young men aren’t able to achieve their degree. Young men are twenty-two percent more likely to drop out of college, and this trend is expected to get worse.
Are screens to blame? Not entirely. Certainly there are many factors, but watching the trend play out in front of me over twenty-five years I can confidently say that heavy screen use is a major culprit. Boys see digital tools as mostly for entertainment. It’s stopping many young men from thinking for themselves, doing for themselves, and growing up. Every hour spent glued to a screen is a lost opportunity to develop thinking skills. How are young men to think independently, think critically, delay gratification, prioritize, and develop the social skills they will need in the complex real world if thousands of hours are lived in virtual worlds?
Fortunately, it’s never too late to help boys and young men improve. If your son is a heavy digital user and you’re concerned, here’s a path forward.
When meeting boys in middle school (and older), I pose simple questions. You can do the same. What kind of technology guy do you think you are? What type do you want to be? That often invites a confused look, so I explain: There are Digital Tool Users and there are Digital Tools… Which are you? The first category is a young man who knows the power of media, uses the Internet thoughtfully, knows how to limit exposure to screens, and sees technology more as a tool than as a source of entertainment. He respects his digital tools, knowing that like a knife, technology can cut both ways. The second category is a young man who is in over his head. He’s drowning in technology. His digital tools are doing the thinking for him. He’s become a tool of the technology. I explain this isn’t a new problem. Thoreau prophetically warned a century and a half ago that Men have become the tools of their tools. Today, the tools are digital. They’re doing our thinking for us. We’re growing dependent on them.
This grabs their attention. Boys, and especially young men, don’t like to be told what to think about or how they should think. They have pride and are competitive. They don’t like seeing themselves as passive. They don’t like the idea that they’re losing ground while others move ahead. The trick is to help boys and young men own that message. It needs to belong to them and not something we force upon them. I don’t push. I never tell them what they should do or how to behave, unless they ask. Instead, I tell them that they are ultimately in control. This resonates with want they want. I tell them that ultimately they are in control of where their attention goes. They have choices. They decide what can enter their minds. They can gain power by blocking out mindless, over-stimulating information. They don’t have to let algorithms, programs, and seductive graphics (designed by others) decide what’s in their heads. They don’t have to think about what others want them to think about, unless it’s their choice. Instead, we talk about making space in their day, space in their heads to reflect, to be more mindful, to think logically when it serves them, and ultimately, to start thinking more for themselves.
That’s the kind of men they all tell me they want to be.
My children have great grades. They insist upon studying with music. What are your thoughts on that?
Generally, my rule is this: There shouldn’t be competing-distracting sounds or visuals going on when studying. But, there are some people who actually seem to focus a bit better with light “background” music. It should be low volume, preferably without words (lyrics are language and tend to distract more than instrumental alone). The bottom line is if your son or daughter is doing well academically and there are no complaints or concerns from their teacher(s), then it’s probably fine. If there is a problem, go back to basics. Quiet, distraction-free environments have worked best for thousands of years to help people think more deeply. Interestingly. some parents have asked their kids to try listening to classical music (which research shows can improve performance), and then switching to anything else when homework is complete. Beyond classical, maybe Jazz, show tunes, new age, or other forms of inspiring music can be be listened to while doing homework. Worth a try!