This blog entry was first posted at Good Digital Parenting, a project of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) designed to help parents, teachers and kids to connect, share and do good online.
Seeing how addicted children and teens can become to their smartphone, tablet, laptop and video games, it’s hard for parents to not be concerned. The Internet can be a perfect escape route for a teen who perceives a lack of valued relationships with peers, parents, teachers, coaches and others.
But the Internet does not have to be isolating and escapist. There are ways our children can utilize technology to increase their feelings of competency and connectedness within the family—something my children helped me learn firsthand.
When I returned to work outside the home a few years ago, I felt completely overwhelmed with all I had to do and all that was not getting done around the house. That feeling quickly escalated to anger when I would return home to find three “slugs” fighting over the family computer or zoned out in front of a video game. One such evening, I typed out a list of all the tasks I did for the family and home, ultimately producing three pages, single-spaced, double-columned, with everything from car maintenance to pet care to vacuuming. I presented the list to my husband and three adolescent children to justify why—as busy as they all were with their work, school and extracurricular schedules—I was still busier than all of them and certainly they would see the need to take over the task of doing their own laundry, along with one or two other things.
My kids had other ideas.
“I can pay the bills online and organize our family photos,” volunteered my middle-school daughter. “And I can plan meals and make grocery lists online,” my first-born son offered.
“Great, more time on the computer,” I thought.
Deflated that no one was grabbing the laundry prize, I decided to go with it and train my kids in those “fun” tasks, thinking once this failed, I could demand they do things my way and re-introduce them to the washing machine.
Training my daughter to pay bills involved introducing her to bill paying and budgeting software and establishing a payment schedule and system for filing bill paperwork. She learned the complete process up to hitting “payment send,” as I decided it was best for all of us if I didn’t share with her the password just in case a few extra zeros got typed into a payment. Yes, it was a great deal of training for a task that I felt certain she would become bored with after a couple of months.
To my surprise, she embraced the task, and through it, became much more aware of what it took to run a household. She even could be heard reminding her siblings to turn off the light when they left the room. “Do you have any idea what our PEPCO bill was last month?” she would lament. In reality, her performing this task did not save me a tremendous amount of time—I still felt I should check over her work before hitting “send”—but the payoff was big in many other ways. She gained valuable training in life skills, leading to a greater sense of competency and a stronger connection with me.
This payoff was repeated in other areas through my children’s willingness to take on our family’s technology-related household tasks. My son enjoyed searching for recipes and maintaining our family’s online cookbook. This often carried over to his helping prepare food and eventually to his doing some grocery shopping once he got his driver’s license.
The task of organizing our family’s online photos was one I often neglected, sadly, but my daughter took it on with gusto, downloading photos from the family camera almost immediately after they were taken, tagging each person in the photos and establishing folders by date and event type. When it came time to making the photo calendar for the grandparents each Christmas, she needed no time locating the appropriate photos for them.
While engaging my kids in these online “chores” did not prevent me from sometimes coming home to find electronic “slugs” and “zombies,” it did significantly increase their feelings of competency and contribution, which research has also shown can help lower their risk of mental health issues during adolescence. These feelings of encouragement also led them to being a little more helpful with other more mundane tasks around the house. Yes, sometimes even the laundry.
Robbye Fox, a certified parent educator, has taught parenting classes for the past 11 years, working primarily with parents of teens. In addition to PEP’s Thriving with Teens class, she teaches workshops on topics including electronics use, allowances, teen communication and planning for safe teen driving. Robbye is also a freelance writer and editor and the mother of three “emerging adults” ages 24, 21 and 18.