My twin girls are close to 16 and as the days of their adolescence tick by, my feelings fluctuate wildly between sheer pride and forlorn despair. Don’t get me wrong – they are beautiful children and I love them dearly. It’s my child-raising skills I worry about as they grow taller, more confident and move with increasing ease through their lives. As a parent, I often feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and since there’s no manual to consult, I follow my gut, clinging vainly to the hope that I’m veering in the right direction.
Average mornings present a good example. My teens were fuming at me the other day, and it wasn’t even 8 a.m. They were going to be late for school and it was all because of their parents, who woke them up (but didn’t ensure they got out of bed) and were not moving fast enough to drive them to school (a 13- minute walk). The girls were angry and indignant. How could we do this, one asked with tears in her eyes.
These days, I’m feeling battered and bruised as I try to raise my adolescents. The kitchen walls ring with harsh words and angry rebukes to simple questions like, “How was your day?” Sullen stares are directed my way and one-word, offhand responses yield no answers to my questions.
The teens in my home are often demanding, angry and unappreciative of their privileges and freedoms. Their glazed eyes are focused on their phones, engaged in narcissistic competitions like who has the most streaks on Instagram and whose posts garnered the most “likes.” They’re not interested in informative podcasts or news stories, and reading books is a pastime they long ago relinquished. I worry that their phone addictions have made their worlds a smaller, less gratifying and more silent place, creating isolation where there should be real friendship, and hostility and exclusion at a time when they need validation and inclusion.
I’m right to worry, according to Jennifer Twenge, who researches generational differences. In a recent essay in Atlantic Monthly, she noted that smartphones have radically changed the lives of teenagers, from their social interactions to their mental health. While they’re physically safer than previous generations, they’re more vulnerable to teen depression and suicide. “There is compelling evidence that these devices are having profound effects on their lives – and making them seriously unhappy,” she writes.
As a parent, I’m guilty. Guilty of giving my kids the devices in the first place and enabling their use through the 24/7 Internet access that makes my life easier. The question is: now that they’re locked into virtual spaces with their friends and peers, how do I wean them away from their smartphones and show them that a life lived in reality is so much richer and more satisfying than one lived in virtual reality?
Teens will be teens and in some ways, my girls’ behaviour is not that different from mine when I was their age. I spent hours tethered to the home phone in long, banal conversations with friends, vehemently resisting my household chores. And like my own kids, I thought my parents had nothing to contribute when it came to matters of the heart or fall-outs with friends.
But there are also big contrasts between our generations. My kids type furtive, intense texts to people I don’t know and cannot protect them from. There’s a broadening chasm between us that makes me anxious and uncomfortable. And as I watch their fingers hover over the screen, a feeling nags at me that these screen-based interactions do not bring them happiness. As Twenge puts it, “The portrait of teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”
It’s that dislocation that terrifies me. As a Jewish mother, my instinct is to want to surround them with the warmth of a community that emphasizes inclusion and belonging. But it’s impossible to create that sense of community when eyes are glued to a screen and almost everything else is considered “boring.” The screen mesmerizes its users and sucks them into its vortex, eroding both their interest in and their ability to find meaning in the world.
I’m aware of how little time I have left to ensure they become decent, kind, hardworking, caring, intelligent adults. I just wish there was a road map that could guide me there.