Future Shock: How to regain control of digital over-use

Mary is the affable and kindly single mother of Jayden (14), an only child, who suffers from social phobia.

Mary: “He’s just so rude when I ask him to come to the dinner table or clean his room. The anger! He spends all night gaming with his friends, which I suppose is good because he is socialising. I just wish he’d listen more and be a part of the family”.

Mary was a concerned and empathic mum. Her son had been involved in a traumatic incident several years prior which had led to the development of social phobia. Jayden played video games with friends from the time he came home until past Mary’s bedtime. Mary had never met the parents of the people Jayden played with, she did not understand video game culture and she was unsure how much time was too much on games.

Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” in the 1960’s to describe the state of stress and disorientation that affect individuals and societies when the rate of cultural and technological change is rapid and accelerating. Toffler, referring to mid-20th century American life, thought that a state of unease and confusion was affecting society of the time. People were becoming overwhelmed by these changes leading to social paralysis. What was true then is definitely true now, and nowhere more obviously than with our relationship to technology.

As individuals and society, we have been tasked with adjusting to intense technology encroachment into our personal lives over the last 25 years: the internet age. Families have only just learnt to deal with home internet on desktop PCs in the family room, when personal laptops brought the net into the bedroom. Then social media came into the picture, giving people a more addictive use of these technologies. This adjustment was closely followed by development of the iPhone and other smart phones. Now people could access their social media everywhere. Gaming technology improved throughout this time. Before people played only with others in the same room. Now people are playing with others, anywhere in the world. The pace of these changes has been dizzying.

Around Australia and the world there are thousands of kids like Jayden, mentioned above. They have good parents, go to good schools, probably have good friends as well. But their families have not been able to keep up with the pace of change. Their parents don’t know or understand digital culture, but they understand that it will be important for the future life. The technology is so new that parents don’t have experience from their own childhood to base rules upon. Often, they are busy and lack engagement with other parents. Often, it is not gaming/social media that they first see as the problem. It’s anger, anxiety and other emotional difficulties. But these emotional difficulties and digital overuse are highly related.

This sort of change is incredibly disempowering and disorienting. Individuals are at a loss, families are at a loss, communities are at a loss. And in this state, games developers and social media corporations get their way: there are no limits, or real limits. There are no existing social conventions around the when’s and where’s of use, so people use anytime and everywhere. And what’s left to do? Experts can’t help. Things have changed too quickly even for science to catch up. Any research is already commenting on yesterday’s problem. What’s left to do? Only one thing:

Start talking to people in your family and local community about digital use. Especially the parents of your kids’ friends. Humans and human societies are incredibly adaptable, but we need to have a shared understanding to withstand falling into future shock.

One of the first things I asked Mary to do after the initial session was to speak to the parents of Jayden’s gaming buddies. This is what she learnt: 1. They also had no idea how long was normal or healthy for 14-year-old boys. 2. All of them had claimed to their parents that everyone else’s parents had lighter restrictions than their own homes, 3. Sometimes, their kids weren’t playing with anyone in their social group, they were playing with people they had never met.

Already, in this first meeting, the parents were starting to share notes and set boundaries. They began calling out their kids BS about other kids use. They set limits on gaming late, or with strangers. They encouraged social occasions in-vivo, not just online. And Jayden? He was still socially anxious. But at least his second problem, gaming overuse, slowly improved. This problem made him sleep-deprived, academically poor and rude and aggressive. Removing this problem made it easier to address his social anxiety and helped his relationship with his harried mum.

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