Are you Struggling With Social Media And Teens?

Are you struggling to connect with your teenager offline? A father-of-four Michael Oates shares his experiences and reminds us why Facebook can never replace face-to-face connections. 

I walked into our bedroom laughing the other night and my wife asked me what was so amusing.

I told her I had just unplugged the wireless cable, and was waiting to see how long it would take before the ‘connected world’ my four children had become so dependant on would fall apart.

As we lay in silence, we could hear their panicked voices from distant rooms asking whether the other child was experiencing the same issues – nothing was working! I stopped the clock at two minutes 30 seconds when my youngest son was bullied into coming upstairs to get me to ‘reboot’ their world. I thought they did pretty well – it was a full 90 seconds beyond when I expected him to appear.

It gave rise to the question, where did this obsession come from and did anyone see it coming?

The struggle is real

As a father of four children ranging from eight to 13 years, I find myself in a constant battle with their desire to be connected over the web, rather than to sit and talk as we did at their age. I’m concerned the continual need to be online and have their head buried in an iPhone, iPad or Nintendo DS will be to the detriment of their soft skills – the ability to interact normally with those around them.

On a recent flight, I had a conversation with an executive at a large oil and gas company. We drifted to the topic of social media, teenagers and the rules he places on his children to try and maintain the balance between the virtual world and reality. His approach was more advanced, and perhaps harsher, than what takes place in our house, however, it probably has some merit: he limits online activity to one hour per day.

His son gets to choose what hour he wants to log on, however once his time is up, the wireless is disabled – perfect! There are no arguments about how much time has or hasn’t been used, as the wireless is programmed to only run for the hour.

When online spills offline

This father went on to say he has seen graduates fall short in interviews for highly competitive roles, due to their lack of soft skills. He interviews graduates with Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATAR) of 99 and above, who are technically brilliant. Yet when it comes to the skill set required to work effectively in a team or use their initiative to approach problems, they fall short, rendering them unsuccessful for the roles.

Interestingly, he said it was the graduates with ATAR scores in the 92-to-95 range who were successful. They were both technically competent, and more often than not possessed the soft skills.

I have a friend who works for a large financial institution and has the same problem. He frames his issue using an amusing analogy: “Ask them to perform as battery hens and they’re fine. If we ask them to go free range, we just don’t get the results”.

What he’s actually trying to say is, if they’re given a set task with parameters they perform brilliantly, but as soon as they have to use their initiative to solve a problem, the results just aren’t there.

As a parent, I find myself faced with a real dilemma.

I don’t want to take the extreme hard line in rationing wireless access for my children, as I know the world is changing at a far greater pace than when I was a child and they need to keep up with it. However, I do feel a real obligation to give them the skills I’m familiar with, such as being able to interact with others, have a conversation and a point of view and learn the art of debating and backing up an argument.

It’s important to sit around a table as a family in the evening – free of any electronic devices – and simply talk. To ask about their day and encourage more than a one-word answer in response, have a discussion about a current news topic and ask for their views, get them to explain why they hold a particular point of view and expect eye contact from them at the same time.

All this sounds very basic, however, I believe it provides them with fundamentals to build on as they grow, so they can articulate their views in more detail and be more effective in whatever area they choose. It’s quite a challenge knowing what is right and wrong, and different families will no doubt take different approaches.

In our house, we struggle to get everyone around the table during the week, with four children each having different sport and after-school commitments, as well as both parents working full-time. You do what you think is right in your situation.

As a parent, one of my greatest fears is to look back on the small window in my life when my children were at home with me and wish I had spent more time making them all they can be.

Words by Michael Oates

Guest Contributor