How To Connect With Your Tech-Obsessed Teen

by Steve Robertson
erikreis / Getty

Do conversations with your offspring begin with a blank stare, as if they suddenly stopped understanding the English language?

This was the first clue something had changed in our house. I started getting drawn-out “ugggh…” noises, followed by eye rolls and lightning-fast departures — all before I could finish my latest tirade about grades, chores, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. In reality, all I wanted to know was what’s for dinner tonight.

“Siri, send new message: plain or pepperoni?”

Does all this sound familiar? Do your children seem distracted at the dinner table? After asking how their day was, does it take them minutes to even register you’ve spoken? Is their only sustained eye contact with a screen, and do their only substantive conversations occur in a virtual space or among their own species?

If so, be warned: You may have a Gen Zer living in your home.

Teenager, Trailblazer, or Someone From Another Planet?

Every generation has gone through this uneasy transition. One minute, you see a 10-year-old playing in the yard; the next thing you know, it’s eight years later, and he reappears as if he’s been on an arduous voyage across foreign lands. This begs the question: Why do children come out of this journey looking so fresh-faced and sparkly while we’re the ones showing signs of wear and tear?

As Gen Zers are looking at their phones, they’re actually forming bonds with people all over the world and embarking on creative projects through digital means. This is where, as parents, need to explore and familiarize ourselves with this global landscape they’re working in.

It’s natural for us to want our children to learn the same social skills that we learned growing up. Studies have shown that Gen Zers are highly competitive and motivated, yet they value their independence. We may sound like our parents when we regale them with stories of pay phones, vinyl records, and RadioShack, but we must understand that times have changed — and that’s kind of amazing.

We have to figure out how to help them find a healthy balance between family, community, and self. The question is: How do we get Gen Zers out of the house, and do we have to?

Visit Their World

There are new rules in this landscape, and sometimes, figuring them out together makes it easier to find that happy medium. Here’s how to get there:

1. Do you speak Instagram? Yes, I speak a little Snapchat.

You’ll never be able to truly connect with your child if you’re shying away from technology — it’s encoded in Gen Zers’ DNA. Get on board with tech by setting learning goals for yourself. Try to master an app every week. Take a coding course with your child or check out a how-to video on YouTube. Join the conversations your Gen Zers are having. As soon as you’re involved, you can start modeling behaviors and teaching them lessons in a language you both speak fluently.

2. Turn every opportunity into a digital opportunity.

Gen Zers can handle responsibility, so give them those opportunities to stretch their imaginations and improve their skills without telling them to put down their phones. Trust them to film your next family get-together for those who couldn’t attend or share Instagram Stories of your family vacation. Empowering them with that responsibility shows them that you appreciate their digital skills, and it also helps them blossom and potentially uncover a passion.

3. Is there a hypocrite in your house? Is it you?

Asking Gen Zers to develop good online habits without checking your own is hypocritical. So when regulating your children’s tech usage, make sure to lead by example. Don’t sit alone scrolling endlessly through your Pinterest feed, oblivious to the world around you. Take up other activities that you love, like sports, painting, or cooking. Learn a new app or even have your child teach you.

Research shows that being virtually present with your child can be really impactful. Whether it’s showing off your video game skills in an e-sports tournament or using Snapchat, relating to your child’s digital interests helps shorten the divide that technology sometimes creates.

4. Download Parenting 2.0.

You should also give your children opportunities to interact without you. For example, summer camps can connect them with pre-college opportunities and teach them to roll with the punches of daily life. It’s hard to restrain ourselves from swooping in to save the day, but children need to learn how to navigate life’s curveballs. Doing it in a safe environment like camp will help you sleep better at night.

Your children will benefit from the opportunity of learning who they are away from home, and being able to do it in a collection of smaller, bite-sized experiences like camp helps better prepare them for the realities of dorm life and the collegiate experience.

For those who haven’t grown up speaking “digital” as a first language, we have to come to terms with the fact that our Gen Zers have a vastly different view of the world. Different isn’t bad — we just have to find ways to infiltrate their world whenever we can and create opportunities for them to do amazing things. And from my seat, colonization and the future have never looked so good.