How technology is shaping their future

Challenges facing parents in the digital age.
Challenges facing parents in the digital age. Photo: Getty

My only child played with her toys in her room, while on the screen of her iPad, another little girl also played. Watching from the door, a range of emotions rocked me: pity, guilt, fascination and a fair dose of anxiety. Recalling a vastly different childhood of rowdy siblings, dog-eared books, and outdoor play, I was unsure if the online playmate was a good thing or not.

While we accept life has changed, many parents fear the pervading influence of technology on our children. We worry over a plethora of issues foreign to our own upbringing – from the rise of indoor life and only children to the reign of over-pampered kids with an excess of toys and rights.

“The generation X parents raising generation Z is probably the biggest generation gap we’ve ever had,” states demographer and social researcher Mark McCrindle. “Their childhood experience was in the 1970s. It was a far more structured, traditional approach to parenting; before consumer technology, before the empowerment of youth, before much of the youth culture.”  

McCrindle has conducted extensive research on the trends shaping Generation Z - children born between 1995 and 2009, currently aged five to 19 - and by proxy the challenges facing their parents (primarily Generation X). The children of Generation Z have been labelled ‘digital natives’; they are the first never to have experienced the pre-internet world.

The average Australian child uses technology for 10 hours a day 

Natalie Koscharsky, a mother of two, is unhappy with the amount of time her 11-year-old son spends on Playstation at his father’s house. “He plays before school, after school and into the night,” Natalie says. “My daughter tells me that sometimes he stays up till eleven o'clock at night. If this isn't addictive behaviour, I don't know what is.”

Internet Gaming Disorder is a condition slated for possible inclusion in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It has been found to act on the same pathways of the brain as drugs, offering neurological rewards and pleasures that for some can lead to addictive behaviour.

According to a DSM-5 factsheet, “the ‘gamers’ play compulsively, to the exclusion of other interests, and their persistent and recurrent online activity results in clinically significant impairment or distress. They experience symptoms of withdrawal when pulled away from gaming”.

Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist and school counsellor with a special interest in the use and overuse of technology, says that “between 3-5% of teenage and college populations have pathological problems with gaming.” She thinks social media can be addictive for girls in a similar way. “I see a lot of girls whose phone is a third arm, but not specific skills in how to mediate their use.”

Technology can provide benefits, but also comes with social dangers

“The web environment creates an alternative existence where traditional social mores and values and social interactions are put to one side and they play to the online rules of the game,” McCrindle says.

“You can end up with young people in this vulnerable stage of life suffering terrible put-downs through social media. For example, people hiding behind technology – abuse, and bullying and saying things they would never say [in person]. It’s a pretty terrible world in which to be shaped. It’s non-stop for them.”

Rivka Solinger, a mum of two, agrees. She recently discovered her 15-year-old daughter posting semi-pornographic photos of herself. “They all do selfies and they’re getting more and more erotic. She’ll post something on Snapchat, posing like a Penthouse Pet with one side of her arse showing,” she says. “Times have changed and 13 is the new 16, whether you like it or not. I think it’s forced her to jump a little quicker through the hoops.”

As McCrindle says, “The combination of technology, popular culture, screen time and peer culture is creating an up-aging generation where they are more empowered; a life stage that is running ahead of their age. It’s giving them information and access that is before they’re at a maturity level to handle it.”

Respondents to McCrindle’s recent research expressed their biggest concerns in raising generation Z were bullying, peer pressure and the negative influence of advertising and the media. Ironically, they had least concern for the physical, spiritual and mental health of their offspring. This is surprising, given the rising prevalence of lifestyle diseases; McCrindle forecasts that by 2027, the year in which all Generation Z have reached adulthood, 77% of boys and 61% of girls will be obese.

McCrindle also points out that one in five Australian children will suffer from some form of mental illness. Other common health problems afflicting this generation include depression, eating disorders and stress related illnesses. “These conditions are all symptoms of the competitive, fast-moving world that this generation of children lives in, forcing them to grow up faster,” McCrindle writes in the ABC of XYZ.

How parents can help their Gen Z kids

Jocelyn Brewer warns against a relaxed approach to technology use. “I love technology and it’s here to stay, but giving that laissez faire approach is dangerous because we don’t know the impacts. We do have to be quite responsible about what our kids are digesting. Think of McDonalds in the 70s: no-one paid much attention to it.”

Brewer believes there needs to be awareness of what she terms the ‘nutritional’ aspects of technology. “What is the benefit of this activity? There’s only 24 hours in the day. While you are playing the game you are spending less time on talking to real people, exercise, and learning skills you need in the real world. Many of the activities they are doing have little 'nutritional' value in terms of education and social benefits, and can lead to overuse and withdrawal and other complications such as obesity, aggression and sleep disorders.”

McCrindle says technology has eroded parental control and advocates a balanced approach, saying that

“Parents need not feel overwhelmed. There are many practical strategies parents can take - restrictions, unplugging modems, changing passwords. Children almost need to be saved from their peers and from themselves.”

Lately, Koscharsky and her children have been watching less TV. “We sit down, have a relaxed dinner and actually talk. When it is warmer weather, we go for a walk after dinner.”

McCrindle notes some retro thinking emerging. He reports a growing trend towards screen-free days, as well as a rise in Scouts enrolments and activities for girls. “A bit of self-correction is happening. Even the young people are getting off Facebook now.”

Overall, McCrindle is optimistic, and the flip side of Generation Z’s borderless virtual reality is greater global awareness. “Part of that is that they are very culturally diverse and that continues to grow. They are more informed. Their values reflect greater need for others’ needs and social justice.”

In spite of the challenges they face, this generation has the “highest level of education ever, most technologically savvy, most globally connected and aware and with a strong social conscience and outward focus,” he says. “I think they’ll make excellent leaders.”