4 min read

Neglect in a digital era

Around a dining table, a family are about to eat.  They don’t speak to one another, their eyes are fixed on various handheld devices which chirp and vibrate at regular intervals.

They consider themselves to be a regular family with a peaceful home.

Let’s look a little closer.

Chloe is twelve and she’s becoming increasingly dependent on Instagram likes to feel good about herself.  She’s being bullied in school but she doesn’t tell anyone because she’s embarrassed.  She’s embarrassed because her Mom is always saying how proud she is of her on Facebook and she doesn’t want to let her down.  Recently she started wearing make-up because she gets more likes that way.  She also uses internet chatrooms where she vents about things that upset her.

All Chloe’s Mom has ever wanted was to be ‘normal’.  She doesn’t feel very normal a lot of the time, she’s in counselling for depression and often feels low.  Social media is an important place for her to show the world how normal and happy she is and how ‘together’ their family is.  She’s often so busy being ‘normal’ on social media that she forgets to ask her kids how they’re doing.

Jason is sixteen and he’s struggling to keep up in school.  But he can lose himself in online gaming whenever he wants.  It’s his way of escaping his problems.  He spends up to six hours a night playing games online with people he’s never met.

Gail Smillie, Carya’s teen brain expert, talks about new forms of neglect in a digital era.

“We use social and emotional availability as a measure of neglect in parenting and what we’re seeing more and more is families who engage more via technology and social networks than face to face.  It’s an emerging form of neglect.  People might not like that term, but that’s what it is.  If you’re not talking to your kids, making eye contact with them, asking how their day was, playing and physically interacting with them; it’s social and emotional neglect and it can be a devastating thing.

Technology certainly isn’t a bad thing, parents should embrace it be present in their kids online world BUT we need to make sure that online presence doesn’t replace actual presence.

Teenagers in particular will often migrate towards social media as a place to live out their drama.  But that online world doesn’t offer them the support that a parent can.  Their online world can actually cause their emotions to spiral out of control where a parent might be able to remind them that feelings come and go this won’t last forever.   Likewise, their online world can provide escapism or a place to pretend everything’s OK.  But problems only escalate when we look the other way.

Social media makes for a very quiet household.  That doesn’t mean everything’s OK, it actually means nobody’s home.  I’d far rather see arguments and tantrums and siblings making fun of each other.  Interaction, that’s the key.

Parents need to be present for their kids, online and offline but offline most importantly.  Don’t text when you could call.  Don’t email when you could go for ice-cream.  Don’t give a ‘like’ when you could give a hug.  And sometimes, just turn your tech off completely.  Everything will still be there when you switch back on again.”     

Find out more about the teenage brain at Carya’s Enspire Learning Series Event

Gail will be presenting Crazy by Design: Exploring the Adolescent Brain on February 4th at the Dutton Theatre, Central Library at 6.30pm.  Tickets cost $35 and are available here.

Photo Credit: Eric Mccandless/ABC