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Digital kids need to connect offline with parents

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From toddlers crying for more Cocomelon videos, to tweens losing it when you force them off their games, to teens whose lives are dominated by what happens on Snapchat, raising kids in the digital era isn’t for the fainthearted. Yet by fostering strong connections with our children, we can help them ride out any online storm.

“There’s a huge correlation between kids who use technology well and parents who are connected and engaged,” Sarah Hoffman told an event hosted by Chevrah Kadisha Community Social Services at The David Lopatie Centre recently. A social media lawyer, Hoffman runs Klikd, which helps teens, parents, and teachers navigate social media safely, together with co-founder, clinical psychologist Pam Tudin.

Being a parent has never been more challenging than it is in today’s digital age, they said. “You can’t give these digital devices, essentially loaded weapons, to your kids and not play a very active role,” said Hoffman. Though it’s often overwhelming for parents, it’s also a tough time to be a child, tween, or teen having to navigate all the challenges online platforms bring. From displaying increased levels of anxiety to dealing with cyber bullying and online predators, kids are enduring much more at a much younger age.

Yet it’s not all bad news, Hoffman said. Our kids are doing some unbelievable things with tech like crowdfunding for students in need. “We can’t despair, we’ve got to embrace tech and use it as an opportunity, as a moment of connection with our kids, as opposed to just instilling fear in them.”

Though there are a mass of parental controls on the market which monitor or block certain content, our kids are digital natives who will almost always outsmart us, Hoffman said. “The greatest parental control is your relationship with your child,” she stressed. “That will stand our kids in the greatest stead when it comes to navigating online challenges.”

Hoffman and Tudin highlighted Klikd’s “four Cs” of digital parenting – context, connection, controls, and cyber-EQ – applying emotional intelligence to the online world. In grasping the context of what’s going on in our teens and tweens world at the moment, it’s important to understand physiologically what’s going on in their brains. While the tween or teen years are a period of extreme and rapid development, their brains are essentially like a Ferrari without brakes, said Hoffman.

“The brain’s ‘braking mechanism’ is called the prefrontal cortex, which is what controls impulses, higher-order thinking, and decision making. It’s that voice in your head that says it’s not such a good idea to send that picture. That piece of software has not been installed in the brain until the age of 25.” That’s why teens and tweens are hardwired to seek risk.

Engagement in risky behaviour gives teens a dopamine hit, a chemical that makes them feel incredible. That’s why digital devices, designed to be addictive, are so powerful. When kids are forced off their devices, if they are in the middle of a game for example, they essentially come down from that hit and they’re therefore in fight-or-flight mode, and it’s very difficult for them just to behave, said Tudin.

Tudin said that we’ve mistakenly been given the message that it’s time to start letting our teens go emotionally. Though providing kids with more freedom as they mature is to some degree developmentally appropriate, she argues that we need to strengthen our connection. “It’s a time of reattachment not detachment. All of our kids are using the device as the bridge to experiencing attachment, which is proof that they still want it.”

Attachment is rooted in a sense of closeness and belonging. “Teens don’t want to be seen to be wanting attachment, but the need remains,” Tudin said. “And so, we have to find different ways of facilitating this. They need to feel significant, like they matter to you,” she said. “They need to feel loved without feeling smothered, and to know that they’re understood.

“They should know they can come to you, and that you will be their soft landing place. Consequences will come later but for now, you’re there to listen and have their backs.” If they don’t feel this, they’re less likely to confide in you.

Talk to your kids in ways that promote engagement, Tudin said. When it comes to the online world, we need to be curious and ask questions, rather than be judgemental. “Our role isn’t to diminish, but to guide.” For example, you can ask what you can do that will help them to study rather than repeatedly harassing them to get on with it. “We have to use every opportunity for discussion rather than disdain.”

Tudin also discussed the social minefield of Snapchat, where the strength of friendships is determined by the frequency of online interactions, and kids see that they are being left out of plans by following their friends’ movements on Snap Map. “Social media is an experience of power, observation, and exclusion,” Tudin said. “So, you’re either feeling very powerful, or powerless while observing these dynamics, which is wreaking havoc with our children in terms of their emotional health.”

Maintaining perspective is vital, they said. “You have to think of yourself as you were in the chocolate aisle at the shops when your children were three years old, begging you for a chocolate at 17:00,” said Tudin. “You said ‘no’, and they said, ‘I hate you!’ It was a case of water off a duck’s back then. Similarly, we have to separate ourselves from that rage around the device because that device is just a symptom of what’s happening in their lives.”

Putting clear boundaries in place is essential as you cannot be held hostage in your own home, the pair said. “If you don’t instil boundaries, the device will be their 11th digit. They’ve got to take a break,” said Hoffman. Make phone-free times and zones, set a device bedtime, and let kids earn data by helping more around the house or by being more conversational at the Shabbos table.

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