Don't worry, this is not yet another story about cyber bullying. This is about something far less sensational, but far more ubiquitous. And maybe in the long run (except for severe situations that end tragically) more damaging.
I'm talking about the fact that tweens and teens spend more time communicating online than they do off. As my own daughter would say, "Duh," as in "Mom, don't you mean way more!"
Texting, IM'ing, emailing ... these channels offer near instant gratification. They are quick and easy and convenient and by eighth grade nearly universally accessible. All good, right? Wrong. At an age when misunderstandings turn into major melodrama, these modern means of communicating lack important cues that help people understand each other. Like eye contact, tone of voice, the chance to ask someone to stop, repeat something or better explain what they really mean.
Then, there are all the solitary activities that revolve around mobile devices. Games and apps and YouTube and iTunes. Not to mention old text conversations and archived photos (my daughter has, and I'm not kidding, about 4,000 pictures on her iPhone). I'm not the only parent I know who worries that all this alone-time is unhealthy.
When I was fourteen, I was an avid reader and an early-stage creative writer, both solitary activities. But, I was also very happy to pick up my pink princess telephone (yes, really, aren't you jealous?) and call a friend. In fact, I'm certain that my parents would tell you I was on the phone all the time. My eighth grade best friend and I used to have this inane ritual that we performed at the end of every call ...
"You hang up first."
"No, you hang up first."
"Okay, we'll count to three and hang up at the same time. One. Two. Three."
"Are you still there?"
"Yeah, are you? Okay, you hang up first."
You get the general idea. (By the way, I really need to keep stories like this in mind when I think my own daughter is acting too silly. Sheesh!) Back to what I was saying ...
We all worry that our kids are glued to their electronic devices. In fact, a recent Apple commercial seems to be reacting to that parental fear. You can watch the ad here.
I've worked in advertising nearly twice as long as I've been a mother. It isn't hard for me to imagine the strategy session that eventually led to this commercial. Research no doubt showed that parents are concerned about their offspring's consumption of (and utter absorption in) digital media. They are scared that their tween or teen is spending too much time alone with their precious little machine and not enough with peers. So, the powers that be, at Apple or at their ad agency or both, determined that the best approach was to create this catchy :30 spot, called "Share the Fun." It positions a mobile device (in this case, an iTouch) as the key to a happy, healthy, analog social life.
Maybe because I do make a living writing advertising, or maybe because I see my daughter alone on her phone all the time, this ad feels too deliberate. Methinks the house that Jobs built protests too much.
But, it doesn't matter.
My daughter's iPhone is here to stay (until, of course, it becomes obsolete and I agree to buy her the next generation). I try to get her to call people, but she would rather text. I do worry that she is missing out on in-person communication. I encourage her to talk to her friends. Really look them in the eye and talk.
Of course, as responsible parents, we've created a few rules. No cell phones at the table — whether in our dining room or a restaurant. No electronics before school or after 8:00 pm. Are these rules rocket science? No. Are they going to make me Good Housekeeping's Mother of the Year? No. Are they often broken? Oh, yeah.
But, at least I've made an attempt. And, when my daughter doesn't agree with a rule (or needs a temporary maternal dispensation because of homework or carpool arrangements or an absolutely crucial life-or-death message that can't possible wait another minute), y'know what?
She has to look me in the eye and talk to me about it.