Offline Parenting in 2024

Back in the early 1990s, when dinosaurs still roamed New York City and investment bankers had to write appointments down in their Filofax agenda-books, everyone was forced to send letters or make phone calls to communicate. When the publicly accessible Internet burst onto the scene, anyone could suddenly communicate instantaneously with anyone, anywhere in the world, in bulk, for free. What could possibly go wrong?

A wave of books, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation, a recent Surgeon General’s advisory on the effects of social media on teen mental health, and hundreds of podcasts and magazine articles are now addressing that question. They stress the need for children to be smart about messages they send online and to establish boundaries between online activities and real life. But, as is often the case, it’s parents figuring out how best to help their kids navigate their online presence, or better yet, helping them to get offline.

Instead of trying to block teenagers from using on–line games and social media, which is futile, parents should instead focus on teaching their kids the skills they need to do so safely from a young age. Cottage Lane Elementary School computer teacher Jacob Tanenbaum has been doing this for decades. He began teaching in the early 2000s when the Internet was in its infancy. He compares teaching fourth and fifth graders on how to manage the Internet with teaching them how to ride a bike safely – it’s a new skill like any other. Young people may not have that life– saving mental filter unless older people show them how.

Tanenbaum notes that parents should highlight the difference between real friends (and relatives), versus online “friends” they have never met in person. Just because someone sounds friendly online, doesn’t mean they are a real friend. One of the funniest and best–made animated shorts on YouTube shows kids why. The tale begins when a greedy cat goes on a mouse dating site… you can imagine the rest.

“Make your kids a part of parent and family smart–phone policy,” Tanenbaum says. He recommends that families network with other parents of the same mindset and maximize the time the children in that group spend directly interacting with each other face to face.

If everyone in a social circle agrees on the same age-appropriate guardrails vis–à–vis access to smartphones, gaming and social media, their offspring will be more likely to follow those rules.

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Actively encourage your kids to get outside, run around in the sun playing games, doing things together face to face instead of texting each other. Palisades is a safe community where older kids can be independent enough to walk to their friends’ houses without a parent hovering overhead. Kids blossom when they have ownership of a goal; give them real, age–appropriate responsibilities – a key ingredient in developing self–esteem. Kids will feel the value and passion of activities that really make them happy.

Being offline is not a chore, it’s a way to reclaim an active and satisfying life for all of us. Think in terms of time on task. Crowd out undesired behavior by keeping them busy with things you want them to do, which means there will be fewer hours they’ll fill with things you don’t want them to do. Organize real world activities where your children get sensations and satisfactions that online activities can’t give them. Start with an activity where, duh, they have to put down the phone to do it.

New puppy? Give your teen or pre–teen full responsibility for training it (take your child with you to dog obedience school to learn how) Expect the child to walk the dog outdoors (without a cell phone) every day. Cooking? Help your older kid learn to cook, then give them responsibility to plan and cook dinner for everyone in the household on Sunday nights. Music? Piano playing takes two hands. Garage band rehearsals get kids face to face. The list goes on and on: Playing cards! Gardening! Sports! Bicycling! Building with Legos! Knitting! Pottery! Hiking! Boating! Swimming! (Lakes and rivers are particularly effective anti–smartphone tools; you can always hope that Junior will accidentally drop that pesky device overboard into deep water.) If this list of “things to do” sounds like fun for parents too, that’s exactly what is intended.

Parents face a fast–moving technological landscape. On the topic of artificial intelligence, Tanenbaum jokes, “Well, at last they finally invented the machine to fulfill my earliest childhood fantasy; something that could do my homework for me!” Unfortunately, teachers now have their work cut out for them. He warns parents to stress to their kids that AI technology is NOT ALIVE. “It can give advice that is dangerous and should not be followed.” Although AI surged out of a gold–rush mentality of marketing and shallow promises without attention being given to serious questions, Tanenbaum points out that it can actually help people in many ways, so we shouldn’t lose sight of this. However, being lazy in school and not learning your assigned material is not one of them.

Another important reminder for teens is that almost all electronic communications are 100 percent public and cannot be erased or clawed back. This observation should become the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. In 2024, the principle continues to expand its scope and importance, covering all kinds of viral social media explosions, AI fakes, etc… From the point of view of older people (i.e. boomers like myself), who used to be able to make our stupid mistakes more quietly, this is a cruel and unfair situation. But it is the new reality our children and grandchildren must navigate.

The desire to be an internet star, to go viral, is a powerful force. When teens get positives, they’re on top of the world, but the Internet is fickle and can turn on them in seconds. When 10964 asked Tanenbaum what being an internet star means to kids, he paused for a moment before answering. “That is almost an existential question… It means something to them that we may not understand.”

Meanwhile, we must all adjust the way we live. Pervasive social media is unavoidable in conducting daily life. At the end of the day, parents need to keep reinforcing their messages with their children and do it consistently. They need to have honest conversations, listen to what their kids are telling them, and repeat the important truths that they want their children to grow up with.