A Guide to Co-Parenting in the Digital Age
What happens when divorced parents don’t agree on technology use?
Marie Foshay’s stepdaughter lives 700 miles away, which means she and her husband don’t get to see her as much as they would like. It also means that they have to watch from a distance as the 14-year-old accesses technology that they prefer she not.
“Her mom wanted her to have a phone when she was 12,” Foshay says. “She is deaf, so the phone gave her a way to communicate, which is great, but we feel it is a responsibility she’s not fully equipped to handle.”
Since receiving the phone two years ago, Foshay has watched with concern as her stepdaughter has joined social media platforms and has shared questionable content. Foshay’s husband’s has reached out to his ex-wife to express concerns about their daughter’s social media use. Those conversations have only led to more conflict, Foshay says, which leaves her wondering, “How do you police from afar and hope that nothing bad happens?”
Finding Common Ground
Jonathan Hetterly, a licensed professional counselor at Southeast Psych and the father to two teenage girls, understands Foshay’s predicament. He helps parents navigate this topic in his practice.
“Technology use can be a hot topic for parents who are no longer together, as they take issue with each other’s differing philosophies and feelings about technology and its use,” he says. “It’s also a hot topic for parents who are still married, but obviously, an additional dimension of conflict and working through the differences arises when they are not together as a couple.”
Hetterly advises parents to take this approach when discussing their child’s technology use with the other parent.
Don’t put the child in the middle. Before any discussion takes place, it’s important to remember to not place the child at the center of the potential conflict.
“Whether this is an intact family unit or a co-parenting situation where the parents aren’t together in a relationship, disagreements and differing opinions are common and normal, and kids can learn to navigate different parenting styles and beliefs,” Hetterly says. “But deception and hiding or aligning a child against a parent is not a healthy behavior and will have consequences far beyond just the issue of technology.” Hetterly warns that if a parent models, endorses or coerces kids to hide something from the other parent, the child can learn that being dishonest is acceptable.
Be the role model. If you take issue with your child’s technology use, be sure to first examine your own habits.
“Parents need to model their own healthy use around technology,” Hetterly says. “Kids tend to model and internalize what they are exposed to more than what they are told. Another key thing is that we lose our high moral ground or authority when we don’t emulate that desired behavior in our own life.”
Understand why your child uses that technology. Start with asking yourself why your child uses or desires to use the technology to begin with, whether it’s a specific device, social media platform or game. There may be positive reasons behind technology use, such as if the child and parents are separated by geographical distance.
“Kids could rely on social media to communicate and stay connected with friends, family and peers away from them for a sustained period.”
A parent can lose footing with their child if the child views them as irrational and reactive, but by asking why their child is using social media and other digital platforms, there is opportunity to open a line of dialogue to see what is positive and negative about their digital activity. That doesn’t mean that a child always gets what they want, but it does help them to feel heard and that their opinion matters, which is important, Hetterly says.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. “Everything tech is not equally objectionable, risky or problematic,” Hetterly says. “Parents can’t lump all technology together and react the same way to each topic or area.”
He recommends that parents differentiate the majors and the minors or the positives and negatives of the technology in question. More and more research is coming out about the effects of screens, gaming and social media, so take some time to read up on what the “majors” and “minors” might be, and share pertinent information with the other parent.
Find the compromise. Once ground rules are established and there is an informed understanding of the technology in question, open a collaborative line of dialogue with the other parent.
“When it comes to the parents and co-parenting, start with what you already agree on,” Hetterly says. “Perhaps you agree on curfew, turning in the smartphone at night and not having it in bedroom, specific social media platforms that are allowed or not allowed. Whatever those areas of agreement are, start with a foundation of what you agree on before tackling the area of differences because that can help diffuse potential conflict.”
Of course, the hope would be that finding common ground and having a conversation will resolve the issue, but sometimes that will not be the case. Sometimes the best approach is to agree to disagree, especially if the disagreement is over the small stuff.
“When the parents are not on good terms, it’s more common that each home has different rules. It’s not ideal, but often it’s the best-case scenario if they experience high levels of conflict.”
Seek remediation. If the conversation is leading to conflict and you feel that technology is negatively impacting your child, Hetterly advises professional help.
“I recommend remediation over hiding, deceiving or putting the kid in the middle where they get mixed messages and they don’t know who to trust when it comes to their parents.”
Hetterly reminds us that, “Compromise is a mature strategy when it makes sense. Don’t be afraid to bend your position. You aren’t losing.”
Meagan Church a freelance writer. She lives in Charlotte with her high school sweetheart, three children and a plethora of pets. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @mchurchwriter, or visit her website www.meaganchurch.com.