Modeling Good Tech

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Sunset Dip at Camp Mishawaka

Nearly 100% of parents, in response to our annual survey of why they send their children to our traditional summer camp, mark “break from technology” among the top 5 reasons. In the last two years, 70% have ranked it number one or two. For their time at camp children surrender their devices and go cold turkey into a digital detox. The kids do miss their phones at first, but the vast majority power it back on with a bit of reluctance (and a deep breath) when we return it to them at the end of the season.

I think these parents champion this disconnection for many reasons- not the least of which is that they are hopeful their kids can reclaim some of the simplicity and innocence they recall from their own youth. Certainly, too, they’ve all read the headlines and witnessed first hand the profound negative effects that overuse of social media can have on children. I championed this disconnect myself and made sure that our own children had the opportunity to take a break from their screens.

Lately I have been monitoring my own phone use, and I’ve concluded that if I want my children to have a healthy relationship with technology, I need to set a better example. My phone follows me to the bathroom, the waiting room, the line at the coffee shop, virtually everywhere. Not long ago I chastised myself for nearly running over an elderly person as I made my way down the airport terminal, head gazing down at my proffered hand. In each of these cases I don’t recall what was so urgent that I couldn’t wait, but I know the people who profit from, and rely on their ability to claim my attention, are really good at making sure I’m always checking, reading, liking, searching. and buying.

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13-year-old kids have an incredible talent when it comes to figuring out new technology, and many parents (myself included) rely on their children as a sort of in-house IT department. Kids also have an incredible talent for spotting hypocrisy-it’s an important part of their development. So, when parents retreat to the “do as I say, not as I do” model of leadership, they run the risk of sending exactly the message they want to avoid. Whatever importance I assign to those reasons for engaging with my phone, I venture to guess that whenever a child comes off task to check theirs, it’s just as important to them, in that moment, as anything I might feel compelled to do with my phone.

From time to time, campers will manage to sneak a phone into Camp. In nearly all of these instances, a parent has provided them with an old, unused phone to turn in so they can keep their real phone. In these cases, parents collude, not so their children can keep their Instagram streak up, but rather so they can maintain constant contact with what’s been referred to as the world’s longest umbilical cord. I suppose we’ve missed a few, but more often than not it becomes clear, quickly, if a camper has a phone. Cabin mates let it “slip,” or even the camper themselves let it be known they’ve been given a phone and don’t want it. Most campers show obvious relief and a bit of shame when they do surrender the phone.

I suspect parents want their children to know that they are “there” to support them. Whatever the intent, the impact is that the child’s sense of safety and belonging is undermined. Kids get the message that it’s OK to break the rules.

In the film, The Social Dilemma, tech entrepreneur (former Pinterest President, Facebook Executive, and Mishawaka camper) Tim Kendall shares a story about his own phone use, and the effectiveness of companies at driving engagement. “I couldn’t get off my phone when I got home, despite having two young kids that needed my love and attention,” he states. He goes on to say that he found himself sneaking into the pantry to use his phone, as if knowing what he was doing was wrong but powerless to stop it.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a 28-day digital detox for parents. It’s not practical, nor do I have any interest in running a summer camp for adults. Phones are too much a fabric of our daily lives and too valuable a tool to dispense with. But it is possible to include good phone use as part of what it means to be a good parent. We would not model unsafe use of power tools for our children, yet why do we model poor skills with this powerful tool? Using our phones the way we would like to see our children using them, as a tool, not a crutch or constant companion, might go a long way towards helping them shed some of that worry and depression. I venture to guess that it might just help us do the same as well.

Looking for a place to start? Here’s a great resource, The Big Disconnect, Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.