Friday, October 24, 2014

How Do You Raise a Digital Daughter?

Photo Credit: Babycakes Romero
Here’s a multiple-choice question:

You throw a birthday party for your nine-year-old daughter, with a magician and a balloon-animal twister.  All the girls show up, but all they want to do is text and play on their cell phones.  You…

a. Are relieved that you wont have to entertain a bunch of noisy kids.
b.  Are appalled!  Who buys their nine-year-old a cell phone?
c. Get creative and have them play “hot potato” with their cell phones.
d.  Take away their cell phones and force them to be social and have fun.  This is a birthday party, right?   

A few years ago, I found the pervasiveness of young kids toting cell phones to be both surprising and alarming.  So much so, that I included this question in my Cosmo-like unscientific quiz on parenting and living in the suburbs and titled it “Conundrums in Absurdia.”  

Fast-forward a few years to when my daughter was 11. She was invited to a Halloween party that promised a toilet-paper-wrapped mummy contest, and pin-the-wings on the bat.  Instead, the 30 some-odd party girls divided up into cliques and collected in corners around the house gazing intently at their slide-texting cell phones.   My cell-phone-less daughter came home sad and bewildered…so much for Halloween and so much for parental party involvement.

Waiting until she was 13 to buy her a cell phone was a decision my husband and I thought reasonable. But she soon found herself left out of private jokes, spontaneous ice skating at the local rink and the latest on who was “dating” whom.  She was left out and we were to blame. Or maybe we were to thank?

Social pressure, particularly for a tween/teenager, is difficult and tricky.  Although my husband and I did not want to cave to the mounting pressure, we ultimately agreed to look into a “starter” cell phone. But, was there a cell phone version of training wheels?  We shopped around and found a basic text-enable phone with a wireless plan that offered “parental limits,” allowing the input of your child’s top 10 contacts – mom, dad, grandparents, siblings – and a even room for a few “besties.”  That Chanukah we surprised our daughter with her very own cell phone. Her reaction was to let out a joyful scream, fall off the sofa, and then onto the floor in ecstasy.

Today, my daughter is 15, and like her peers she sports a $500 iPhone.  The iPhone is her constant companion, her umbilical cord, feeding her the necessary socialization to survive in our always on, short-take, selfie-loving society.  

How do you raise a digital daughter?

It's a new conundrum we are all facing together.  Unlike boys, girls are so much more socially aware of outside influences.  Girls tend to be more social, more connected and they care more about fitting in. That’s why they read teen and fashion magazines and blogs. That’s why their smartphones never leave their sides. And that’s why they text-constantly, are obsessed with Instagram and Facebook “likes,” take hundreds of photos, and have group chats with their friends – a.k.a. online cliques.

But, like all obsessions, it needs to be kept in check.  According to Larry Rosen, professor and international expert in the Psychology of Technology,  “…by choosing to not miss out on their virtual social world they are missing out on their real social world right in front of their face.”

The rise of social media makes me sentimental for the good old days of being yelled at by our parents to get off our always-tangled corded telephone.  Remember The Brady Bunch episode when a huge phone bill prompts Mike to have a pay telephone installed to teach the kids a lesson in financial responsibility?  What do they say?  The more things change, the more they stay the same? 

Award-winning media theorist, author, documentarian, correspondent for PBS Frontline’s “Generation Like” and coiner of the terms, “digital native” and “screenagers” Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, “PresentShock, When Everything Happens Now,” opens with the following scene:

“She’s at a bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but she seems oblivious to the boys and the music.   Instead of engaging with those around her, she’s scrolling through text messages on her phone, from friends at other parties across town. She needs to know if the event she is at is the event to be at, or whether something better is happening at that very moment, somewhere else.”

This is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) at its best – and worst.   And increasingly, we are all guilty.  Rushkoff calls this the new “now.” We all need to step back and help each other and our daughters wisely navigate through this new reality.  Our daughters may be digital natives, but they still need our guidance and our perspective.

As a 25-plus-year communications professional, I have thrilled at riding the crashing waves of Internet culture.  I have been fortunate to be part of seminal technology milestones that have impacted consumers and how we communicate: AT&T’s launch of the first video phone, IBM’s launch of the Internet, Sierra Online’s launch of an online gaming network, id Software’s QUAKE, the multi-player gaming phenomenon and House Party’s experience-driven social networking platform. But it wasn’t until I had my own kids that I recognized the profound changes these new technologies are having on our digital natives.

Kids today are growing up EVEN FASTER - at Internet speed and nobody gave us a guidebook.   

There is no doubt that our new communications tools and the social media channels that ride on their backs are influencing the way we all socialize and communicate – girls and boys alike.   But for our girls, our daughters who are growing up in a still male-dominated society, and who are often more harshly judged, it is even more profound and impactful.

We need to empower our girls to find their own authentic voice and not rely on trendy Internet slang (LOL!) or emojis J to make their feelings known; to pick up their bowed heads from that hypnotic screen and be comfortable in their own skins; to learn how to speak articulately and with confidence; to stop posing like their favorite celebrity icon; to look a person in the eye; to shake a hand and make a physical connection. 

Mostly, we need to teach them to be present in the new “now” and enjoy each precious moment. 

As for the answer to the upfront multiple-choice question, I would go with d.


Amanda Wesner said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Audrey! I am beginning to think that the very sight of a cell phone causes an emotional response in a viewer, and I would love to hear your thoughts on that at some point.

Audrey Mann Cronin said...

Thank you Amanda! Yes, we all seem to be constantly "on call," feeling obligated to be connected 24/7 and addicted to the instant gratification. And, when our phones are out of sight, or heaven forbid, lost, we become anxious - at least I know I do! There have been stories about teens sleeping with their phones by their bedsides or even under their pillows tied to sleep deprivation.

Amanda said...

Happy to be your digital daughter! :)

Laura said...

Thank you Audrey for choosing (d)! This digital dilemma is not unique to girls. The mantra in our house of boys is "go play outside!" Same thing we all heard as kids. It forced us to work together to come up with fun games to entertain ourselves. These are essential tools in life - creativity, teamwork, compromise - none of which can be learned on a phone or an app!

Randy Wilhelm said...

As the leader of a education technology firm that is dedicated to "igniting the hope of knowing" (@Knovation), I appreciate Audrey for opening up space for adults to talk about how the wired/connected world is changing the socializing experience of our youth/kids, especially girls. We want our kids to understand the world, but we want them to still put the device down and enjoy face to face interactions, where you examine the eyes of your friend or family member, feel pain and experience genuine joy. This issue needs to get more play-time in our discussion about raising up women of integrity to serve our world. Thanks, Audrey.

K. Eves said...

Audrey, so glad you picked "D" - so did I.

I always feel like I risk sounding like the "older generation" when I focus on putting down the technology. I LOVE today's technology, what it does for communications, and the promises it brings for the future. It brings me together with my cousins on the other side of the ocean for example, and at work, it helps me communicate en masse, easily and more frequently than I was able to do when when I began my career. I do worry about what is lost in eye-to-eye contact, touch, and tone of voice - when we interact without a device between us. Nuance, emphasis, warmth, sincerity can not be equalled with hardware and emoji. It's about balance. I hope we continue to find new ways to bring our world together through technology without losing the literal human touch.

To the "younger generation" parents out there - balance can be achieved. Give yourselves permission to limit tech time for the kids - be strong when they tell you "you don't understand me/us" and "everyone else's parents let them" and "you're a horrible parent" - in the end, they will appreciate what you did for them and so will you.

Mistor Wiiilson said...

What a nice piece... I'm going to see if my 17 year old daughter will read it to offer her opinion, although I'm pretty sure I'll just get a TL;DR from her. ;)