We spend a great time and energy worrying about what the Internet is doing to our kids. We spend far less time and energy realizing that the Internet worries our kids. As a family therapist who specializes in helping teens and their parents with the challenges that new technologies create, I have grown increasingly aware of how much our children worry about the impact of technology and the Internet on their sense of safety and wellbeing.
A few examples:
A 15 year old laments that he is part of, “The Me Generation”. He explains, “you know we are always buried in our phones and don’t care as much about other people.” He goes on to say that he worries even more about his little sister because, “she got a smart phone when she was even younger.”
A 10 year old worries that the hours she spent creating a world in Minecraft will be ruined by “hackers.” When I ask what she means, she says, “you know, those people out there who want to ruin the internet and peoples lives.”
A group of 14 year olds dream up an app that allows them to lock their parents and friend’s phones when they are driving in an effort to “save their lives.”
These are just a few examples of what I hear from kids who worry that they are addicted to their devices, they are being manipulated by forces that they are constantly interacting with but can’t quite name and that they are being monitored, not only by their parents and schools but also the government, future colleges and future employers.
We might see this worry as a positive sign. That we are getting through to a generation not developmentally ready to see the dangers of the technology they so adore. My concern is that the opposite is true. That the sense of worry that kids feel about the Internet is often too generalized. That they are not developmentally prepared to understand this kind of worry and that this creates stress in their lives that is counterproductive to building the kinds of social and emotional skills that children need to thrive in a digital culture.
In a workshop for parents about the impact of technology on children and families, my colleague Anne Collier of ConnectSafely.org described the Internet as, “a living, highly fluid, social, individual digital web that is embedded in our real lives and mirrors are offline lives.” I agree with this description because it captures just how vast and ubiquitous the Internet and digital technologies have become in our lives.
The Internet is inside and outside of us, it is real and virtual, it is individual and communal and it is local and global. In other words we are not talking about a specific thing when we talk about the Internet, we are talking about something that is widespread and general. Increasingly, I am hearing the worry kids have about the internet as general too. The underlying fear being what is the internet doing to my brain.
General anxiety is free floating anxiety and the stuff of anxiety disorders. It is not the good anxiety that causes us to react to pressing, specific and immediate danger, it is the kind that feels both random and out of our locus of control. Our brains and bodies are biologically attuned to look out for danger and when we live in environments with too much free floating anxiety we do not function well. We are more likely to react with anger, experience panic, think obsessively or just shut down.
I believe that this kind of stress makes it less likely for children to be able to make good choices. By creating an atmosphere of fear about the Internet we make it less possible for kids to access the more social and emotional skills such as empathy, impulse control and perspective taking. By only pointing to the dangers and not naming how this creates a sense of feeling unsafe we are doing a great disservice and undermining our attempts to educate our children.
So what should we be doing to address the fact that our kids feel stressed about their use of the Internet?
First we must listen to their fears and not take these fears as a good sign that the messages are getting through. We should be more careful in the ways that we talk to our children and talk about our children. We are too quick to see them as addicted and too quick to blame technology use for the difficulties they experience in social life, at home and at school. We should set limits for them that take into account their wellbeing. These limits should be less about technology and more about getting a good night sleep, building strong social connections, encouraging presence over performance and living balanced lives.
When we recognize and take responsibility for the atmosphere of fear that we have created about the Internet we will be able to partner with our children in reducing stress in their lives. Only then will be able transform free floating anxiety to the good kind of anxiety, the kind that our children can be encouraged to actually do something about. When this happens we all benefit and families can become kinder, more empathetic, less distracted and more generous with our time and energy even in a world that is increasingly digital.
Today children are able to recite memorized facts about the dangers of the Internet such as sexting, predators and cyberbullying but too often see these as far away dangers that happen in other places. Not to say that children do not get harmed by these behaviors