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Friday, April 18, 2014

Staying Connected in a Hyper-Connected World

This feature article was first written in July 2013 for Essential Parenting, an online parenting magazine by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It has been reproduced here following the closure of the magazine.
The changing face of society: Dinners are no longer the same...
It is a rather common picture nowadays at restaurants all across Singapore. An entire family of four would be seated either waiting for the food or eating. The father would be surfing the Internet or checking email on his iPhone or Android; the mother talking to friends or searching for the latest fashion information on her smartphone; the teenage daughter listening to music on her iPod or communicating with her friends via WhatsApp; and the little toddler watching cartoons or playing games on his iPad.

One could argue that the family has the best communication technology there is on the market. However, how connected are each of the family members with regards to the day to day happenings of each other?

In the more than 10 years that I have worked in the youth sector, I have talked to many teenagers about what they desire most in life. And most of them have expressed that they want their parents to communicate more with them, as well as to try to understand them better.
Calling for more open communication between parents
and their children.
Some parents have attempted to connect with their children via the ubiquitous social network known popularly as Facebook. Set up less than 10 years ago by a second-year Harvard student, the online site has grown to become one of the largest companies in the world, leading the social networking industry and overtaking previous competitors such as Friendster and MySpace. Parents feel that by connecting with their children via Facebook, that they would be able to monitor the friends that their kids mix with, and in the process keep tabs on all their activities.

I used to conduct lessons with my students on cyber wellness issues and one of the questions I ask would be about Internet privacy and whether they would be comfortable to “friend” their parents on Facebook. The responses were mostly mixed, with some students insisting that they would never allow their parents to be their Facebook friends, as their parents sometimes embarrassed them by asking them whether a certain guy or girl in their photos was someone they liked. These students were especially upset because they felt that their parents were using Facebook to infringe on their privacy, something that they valued dearly as teenagers. Other students were however more open to adding their parents as Facebook friends. As a 17-year-old girl once shared, she maintained a very close relationship with her mother and often talked about all kinds of issues. Her Facebook communication with her mother was therefore an extension of the already close physical connection they shared.

It is understandable for parents to want to monitor their children’s activities online as there is an inherent (and certainly not unfounded) fear that the young people could meet unsavoury characters online, and subsequently be exposed to negative influences. This is the darker side of the Internet highway where child predators and other undesirable people could lurk and entrap the young teenagers. That is the reason why when my wife and I give seminars to parents on the Internet and its influences, we are often asked for practical ways on how to monitor youth online behaviour. While we have pointed to a couple of websites and other practical measures to help parents keep a watchful eye on their children, we have however also advised parents that they need to communicate more with their kids. Our perspective is that if parents are able to talk about real issues with their children, it is less likely that the young ones would hide their online activities from them.

One teenager shared with me during a recent student event that her family had gone for a group counselling session and the one thing that she had requested was for her parents not to use their handphones during dinner. Elaborating, the student shared that her parents would always be talking about their business during dinner and that she had felt very alone. To her, quality time was a precious moment when all family members did things together and talked to each other about the things that mattered most.
The importance of sharing quality time with the family over meals. 
Perhaps then it’s not so much about how many connections you have with your children; but that the quality of each connection is meaningful and effective.

Suggestions for How to Communicate with Your Children in a Hyper-Connected World
  • Just Friends - Respect your children’s privacy. Only join their online social network if they are agreeable to it.
  • Open Communication Lines – Remember to discuss important life issues with them over dinner or during other times.
  • A Physical Touch – Think of non-virtual activities that you can do together with your child. These could be hobbies or outings that he or she enjoys.

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