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‘Parenting the Smartphone generation’
March 8, 2019

By Jennifer Von Ohlen
Staff Writer

DASSEL, COKATO, MN – The question of how to raise children in a world where technology is integrated into everyday life – and only as far away as one’s pocket – is not a new one.

It’s answer, however, will depend upon who is asked.

To help local parents and youth workers explore this question, Elim Mission, First Baptist, and other area churches hosted a parenting seminar March 3, featuring author and youth ministry worker and speaker Jonathan McKee.

McKee has more than 20 years of experience working with students in the youth ministry, and has written more than 20 books on different topics that will come up when raising a teen/pre-teen.

He shared that growing up in his childhood home, one of the biggest arguments that would arise was, “Get off the phone!”

Back then, the family would be sharing a single landline. The phones families use today, however, have a lot more capability, and are often dedicated to one per person (depending on age, and the parents’ discretion on when their kids can have their own phone).

According to a study done by Common Sense Media, the number of Smartphones per teenager has “dramatically increased,” from 41 percent of teenagers having them in 2012, to 89 percent in 2018.

Likewise, 34 percent of teens were using social media multiple times a day in 2012, which was measured to be 70 percent in 2018.

McKee said he often refers to Smartphones as “self-esteem barometers,” because of their access to social media, where the number of one’s followers, friends, and likes are all recorded.

In relation, McKee shared several articles stating that teen depression, suicide, and anxiety are at record levels – of which almost all the research mentions the use of smartphones as a contributing factor.

“It’s not that this device is an evil device. It’s not that it’s a bad device. It’s not one that we should absolutely deny to our kids, but perhaps we should delay it a little bit, because we’re being a little too quick to hand it to our kids,” McKee stated.

McKee’s presentation was organized into eight units, each of which will be outlined below.

Connect with your kids face-to-face

While establishing what boundaries to set in place for one’s kids can vary, McKee said every expert agrees that bonding with one’s children is essential – “especially in a world where the average dad spends more time watching Netflix than spending time with his kids, and the average spouse spends more time starring at a screen than hanging out with their spouse,” according to McKee.

He shared that recent studies are finding that 65 percent of teenagers wish they were better able to limit the time spent on their phones, and that 69 percent would rather socialize in person than online.

“In the last year and half, I think we, as a country, are starting to realize that these screens are becoming a little too much,” said McKee. “And even though we’re not ready to throw our screens away, or say they’re completely bad, I think we’re realizing the need for some rest, for pause; and young people are definitely realizing that.”

“So take advantage of that,” he continued. “Use that, understand that we can have the biggest impact with our kids not with how we govern their phones, but how we dialogue and hang out with them.”

Oftentimes, when parents get concerned over their child’s phone/screen time, they typically tend to tighten up on the rules with the phone (time limit, no phones in the bedroom, etc.) rather than dedicate more time to being with their kids.

McKee said these rules are not necessarily bad, but they shouldn’t be in place of family bonding.

“Our kids learn so much more, they adopt our values so much more, through conversation,” he stated.

McKee shared this is also a biblical concept, stated in Deuteronomy 6:7, that if the desire is to pass values onto one’s kids, parents and mentors need to:

“Impress [those values; God’s commands] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

“In a world that’s so full of screens, we need to look for opportunities when our hands aren’t full of screens,” McKee encouraged. “[We need to] look for these communication arena settings where conversation naturally happens. Find these opportunities where you can connect with your kids face-to-face.”

Notice their world

A common problem parents run into when trying to have a conversation with their kids is that they don’t know what to talk about with them.

McKee said the fix for this is to start noticing their kids’ world.

“It starts with a piece of your time to get to know their world, and their interests, and be able to listen to them and notice what’s going on in their world,” McKee stated, adding that this is especially important because teenagers are getting more and more used to being “ignored, in a way.”

McKee shared that part of this could be linked to adults averaging around an hour and a half more time on entertainment media than the average teenager. This would set adults at 10.5 hours per day, and teenagers at nine hours a day.

“Perhaps that means putting down our own screens, and kinda just noticing what is going on in the world of our kids,” McKee commented.

This isn’t a one-time conversation, though; it’s ongoing. It’s regularly paying attention to what they are talking about with their friends; topics or persons or apps that they talk about repetitively; and asking more about them or researching what those things are.

Maybe look up the top 10 songs in America on occasion, and see what the lyrics are.

“Is it possible for you to become an expert? No, that’s not what I’m asking you to do at all,” McKee clarified. “I’m just going to say, become a little bit aware where if you hear your kids in the car are constantly using a certain app or talking about something, say, ‘hey, show me.’”

One other part of a teenagers’ world is the additional, unexpected pressure that comes with social media. Through various social media outlets, such as Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, users are now able to see exactly how many friends, followers, or likes they have compared to everyone else.

Posts made on these sites are also usually highlighting the best part of its users’ lives, making it easy for teenagers to automatically start comparing their lives to what they’re seeing online.

Understand that culture affects kids – big time

As parents bring up areas of concern with their children, it isn’t uncommon to get the response, “Mom, it doesn’t affect me.”

A common example of this conversation would be a certain song/music choice, and the kid says, “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just like the beat.”

“But what we’re finding is that it is affecting them – big time,” McKee shared.

For instance, the sexualization of girls in song lyrics, ads, and other media (which again is being consumed about nine hours a day) has been making young girls feel pressured to exert themselves in this way, and research has found teenage boys who listen to music with sexual song lyrics are more likely to start objectifying women and become more prone to sexual thoughts.

Studies have also found that “young teens who viewed movies with sexual content were profoundly influenced by what they watched. They initiated sexual behavior earlier than their peers who had viewed less sexual content, and they tended to imitate the on-screen sexual behaviors they saw – which included casual sex, having multiple partners and high-risk behaviors,” as reported by the Washington Times on behalf of the Psychological Science journal in 2012.

When McKee asked a group of teenagers what they think of a particular song with a sexualized message, a 14-year-old girl responded, “I love this song, and I don’t really care what the lyrics mean.”

His conclusion is that while teenagers don’t believe they are being impacted by the content they engage in nine hours a day, it does affect them over time.

Don’t freak out

As parents start to learn more and more about what can be found within a teenager’s world – whether song lyrics, social media behaviors, Netflix shows, or other forms of media – McKee knows, in the heat of the moment, parents sometimes want to search their kids’ phones and see how they’ve been using them.

One of the biggest parenting mistakes McKee recognized he made was reacting on the spot. Instead, he encourages parents to “press pause” and take time to meditate and calm down from the situation before responding, or having a conversation with their kid.

“Most of us are not really good off the cuff, off the fly,” said McKee. “And most of us rely on our own wisdom, when we need to rely on [God’s] wisdom and strength.”

Sometimes, parents will need a few hours. Sometimes, they will need a few days. McKee said parents should take as much time as they need in order to “not lose their cool.”

He also said a good night’s sleep can provide a clear mind for the decisions and conversations that need to be had.

“Pretend that you’re a lawyer about to defend your child,” said McKee. “You want to be ready to listen in order to understand their story and plead their case.”

He added that he’s not saying parents will be able to see eye-to-eye with their children. Rather, he is saying that being in a level-headed state of mind can help generate some of the most meaningful conversations between teenagers and their parents.

Move from reactive to proactive

If given the choice, parents would most often choose being able to prevent certain situations from arising versus dealing with them afterwards. To help with this, McKee encouraged parents to set up some clear boundaries beforehand, and to discuss them as a family to make sure everyone is aware of the expectations.

Because these expectations are going to vary from household to household, McKee shared some proactive measures that other families have found to be effective for them:

• making clear, calm statements about what is not allowed in the house, such as certain music artists or TV shows;

• limiting screen time to some degree (which can be set up on individual phones)

• not allowing social media until at least the age of 13 – which is the minimum legal age for setting up social media profiles. Anyone younger than 13 who has a social media page had to lie about their birth year in order to gain access;

• having everyone’s devices rest on a charging station, located in the parents’ bedroom, overnight; and

• establishing tech-free zones, such as the kitchen table (the McKee family has no-tech Tuesdays in their home, which was actually suggested by McKee’s kids).

“You come up with a boundary – no tech at the table – and it creates those bonding moments,” shared McKee. “It’s one of those rules that help with the relationship.”

He added, “Remember, it’s not the boundaries that are going to teach our kids morals or values. But these boundaries might create bonding moments, which is usually where values are passed on.”

Don’t expect parental controls to raise your kids

While there are several programs/softwares out there that can create filters or set screen-time restrictions, it does not mean parents have 100 percent control over what their children see.

Parents, for instance, cannot preview whatever their childrens’’ friends show them at school, at their house, or wherever.

McKee emphasized that the parents’ values must be established in their kids through that bonding time with them in order for the children to know in what they should and should not be engaging.

“Parenting takes a lot of work,” he stated. “You can’t just set rules and all will be good.”

Don’t become so focused on blocking lies you forget to talk about the truth

Although the role of a parent may seem overwhelming, with the dread of what one’s child is watching when their parents are not around, McKee said it is important not to get so caught up in the lies attacking teenagers that parents forget to tell them what is God’s truth.

“This is probably the mistake I made parenting, and I made a ton,” shared McKee. “I think at times, I was so focused on, “OK, well I have to block this. We need to make sure the kids aren’t hearing this . . . and I was so focused on that, that I could have been more focused on the truth.”

Quoting Psalm 78:4, McKee said, “We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about His power and His mighty wonders.”

He then compared life to certain video/computer games where at a certain level, the player is spending so much time blocking all the “bad” coming at them, that they can’t make any progress.

“Sometimes, in this world, that’s what we feel like as parents,” said McKee. “If you’re trying to block every bit of porn and every bit of music, you’re going to tire yourself out.”

Instead, McKee challenged parents to ask themselves, when do they take the opportunity to share truth with their children?

McKee commented, “I think we, as parents, need to realize, it’s more than blocking out the bad stuff. It’s having conversations about the good stuff.”

Though parents may state they let youth group fill that need, McKee went back to the Deuteronomy verse, in that truth should be shared with children at all times of day.

As an illustration, McKee referred to an episode of Smallville – a show from the early 2000s that centers around Clark Kent’s (Superman) years as a teenager. In the episode, Kent needs to strengthen his hearing in order to save a friend. To train himself, he turns on every piece of machinery in the family barn, while his adopted father goes around the back and whispers Kent’s name.

That’s the voice Kent trains himself to listen for amidst all the other distractions – and when he does, all the other sounds are quieted.

“When we learn to tune into our Father’s voice, the distractions are silenced,” said McKee. “We need to tune into our Father’s voice. We need to be advocates of the truth. There are so many distractions out in the world, and there is no way we can silence them all. But if we teach [our kids] to hear God’s voice amidst the distractions, and to recognize truth in a world of lies, then when they’re out on their own, and we’re not there to block away all the bad stuff, maybe they can make these decisions on their own, because they know what the truth looks like.”

Become a media mentor

When looking for opportunities to share values with one’s children, McKee said becoming a media mentor is a good place to start.

“You don’t have to be an expert; you just have to walk with your kid through this,” said McKee.

This means that if a child asks their parent about a certain type of media, such as a movie, app, or social media outlet, the parent says something along the lines of, “I don’t know. Let’s check it out together.”

Since it is unlikely that a child who’s moved off to college or out of the home is going to ask his/her parents for permission to do something, McKee said it is important to show kids how to make good decisions when they are younger. One of the best ways he said to do that is by letting the child be involved with the decision-making process.

Ways to do this could be researching safety tips, parental concerns, and other such topics about the opportunity in question.

After the research is done, parents can then evaluate their child’s decision-making skills by asking if this opportunity is one with which they should proceed.

For instance, if a child thinks they should have a particular app the parent doesn’t think they are ready to have, it becomes an opportunity to discuss why he/she is not allowed to have that app.

“The more you have this discussion, and actually walk with them, act like a mentor, and tell them the ‘why,’ the more they are going to understand the heart behind it, not just the ‘yes’ or the ‘no,’” said McKee.

He added, “‘Because I said so’ doesn’t teach jack,” other than that parental authority is all children need to know.

McKee said this is another reason to spend time in the Bible, so that kids can start to recognize the world’s lies for themselves.

He referred to Psalm 101, “I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar. I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them. I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil. I will not tolerate people who slander their neighbors. I will not endure conceit and pride” (verses 3-5).

“It’s amazing how much that scripture right there still has relevance to what’s out there today,” McKee noted.

McKee said the biggest reason parents don’t become media mentors is because it requires a lot of work. It’s easier to say “download whatever you want,” or to say “no” to anything that’s asked.

“It [does] take a lot of work. And you know why? Because it’s worth it. It’s absolutely worth it,” he stated.

McKee encouraged parents to go on a one-week boundaries fast before taking the initiative to make some technology changes or have related conversations within the home. Within that time, parents should try to learn something about their children they never knew through an activity they enjoy.

Or, perhaps the conversation will come about by parents removing whatever distraction is in their life when their child asks for their attention.

McKee shared that one father said that he is notorious in his family for not wanting to be disturbed when he is doing the bills. Yet, one day, his daughter came in, and said she had a question.

Instead of asking her to come back later, he slid the bills aside, turned to look at his daughter, and asked what she needed.

What resulted was what he described as the most meaningful conversation he has ever had, and that that moment transformed his relationship with his daughter – who was astounded that her dad put the bills away in order to listen to her.

McKee asked, “What do we need to slide aside to notice our kids this week?”

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