Today, I’m privileged to have writer and speaker, Marybeth Hicks share her creative ideas for guiding her teenagers in getting the most out of technology without it getting the best of them. She writes a weekly column for The Washington Times and has written three books on parenting. Her upcoming book, Teachable Moments, represented by my literary agent husband, comes out next summer and is full of encouragement for parents who want to foster deep personal connections while navigating the murky waters of the digital life. You can find Marybeth at her blog and on Twitter. See below for your chance to win a copy of Marybeth’s book, The Perfect World Inside My Minivan.


I feel a little hypocritical writing a post about living a less digital life. I’m not exactly a role model for the low-tech movement.

I sometimes answer work emails in the bathroom.

I use an e-version of a Novena prayer book on my phone to pray the rosary.

I text my kids from the parking lot of the grocery store – a mere five minutes from my house – to tell them to turn on the oven, because obviously waiting for it to preheat would delay the process of feeding my family by an additional four and a half minutes.

Not to mention, I’m the official Verizon Poster Mom, with six iPhones on my family-share plan – one for each of us – plus a flip phone for a line I can’t get rid of until 2014 without paying a huge fine.  (That’s a joke. If I were the “official” Poster Mom, Verizon would be paying me instead of me shelling out an unholy sum of money every month).

Yet Darcy’s Less Digital Life series has caused me to reflect on how entrenched my family has become in our digital world, and admit that our media consumption can be insidiously disruptive to doing the things we ought to do.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2000, when my eldest, Kate, was a sixth grader, she asked if she could get an AIM account so that she could instant message her friends after school. I didn’t know what that was, so I asked, “How would that work?”

She told me that she would use the computer (then a dial-up connection) to message back and forth with her friends – the people with whom she had just spent the preceding seven hours. I said, “That seems unnecessary. Why not just call them if you need to talk or ride your bike to their houses?”

“I can’t call them,” she said. “They’re all using their phone lines to IM with everyone else. And they don’t want me to come over. They want me to IM.”

I’ll never forget my profound and life-changing reply. “Nah. I don’t think so. Go outside and play with your siblings.”

We were less digital, to be sure, and Kate had the slowest social life of any middle schooler in her class. But she survived.

Ten years later, when my youngest child, Amy, started the eighth grade, she was one of only a handful of kids without a cell phone. (And by “handful” I mean exactly five.) Our family policy was that you got a cell phone in the summer before high school, but I made an exception for Amy, who got one halfway through the school year, because it was convenient for me, and because that’s what you do with the youngest kid. You give up.

Things have changed so rapidly during the years we have been parenting adolescents that it has been challenging to keep the culture at bay.

To wit: Daughter #1 got a Facebook page in the summer after she graduated from high school (she hid this from me because she thought I would disapprove. I had to explain, “You’re going to college. This is totally fine.”).

Daughter #2, Betsy, got her Facebook page during her senior year on the strong recommendation of her older sis, who claimed they would be able to stay in closer touch if they used Facebook.  The first post from a friend on Betsy’s page: “Congratulations on finally becoming a regular teenager.”

Jimmy and Amy got Facebook accounts in their sophomore years because I realized it was necessary in order to interact with their peers about everything from homework to running practice to spirit night attire at the football game.

Although it turns out Facebook isn’t that important anymore because “nobody” uses it except middle-aged moms.

Now, what is required is Twitter. And SnapChat. And Instagram. And Tumblr. For my kids, staying connected means managing a whole host of apps where “friends” comment on and “like” your pithy posts and filtered selfies.

All four of my children use these apps. I have them, too, and in fact due to my writer life, I was on Twitter back when nobody understood what it was for or how it worked. (Turns out it is best used to incite civil insurrections and access coffee coupons. Who knew?) Even my husband is on Twitter, because we all insisted he was missing out.

In a family of teens and young adults, our digital interactions keep me closer to my children than I could be without the convenience of technology and the fun of social media.  I stalk them just enough to know they’re out there, and try to remember that commenting or posting too much on their accounts would be like hanging around if they had a group of friends over to the house. You have to know when to leave the room.

As much as I enjoy it, the digital life has occasionally proved to be too much of a good thing.

Exactly a year ago, I did something I hardly ever do – I went online to the school’s academic tracking site to check my daughter’s grades. (Filed under: Too much Digital Parenting – the online grade book.)

I don’t typically access the grade book site because I believe a high schooler ought to be tracking her own grades, and if she’s struggling and needs my help, she ought to alert me of this fact. This is called being accountable and mature. It’s a goal we have around our house.

Anyhow, I was suspicious about Amy. She wasn’t talking much about school but she seemed to be upset about her classes. My investigation turned up the source of her stress: My bright, articulate, clever high school student was carrying a solid “C” average in every class.

Yet her Instagram posts were consistently pulling an “A” with upwards of 75 “likes” for just about every picture.

Obviously, I had to pull the plug. Literally. It was clear Amy’s digital life was interfering with her actual obligations of going to school, doing her homework, studying for tests, and conducting herself as a responsible student.

I called Amy into my home office, where the family computer also is located, and had her open the account pages for all of her social media sites. Then, I dismissed her from the room and promptly changed the password on each one, thereby putting my daughter into a digital-free state of existence known as “Amish Lockdown.”

Our deal was this: If she could figure out the password – and demonstrate to me that she truly understood its significance – she could regain access to her social media sites.

Every day, she grilled me for clues. “Is it someone’s name?” No.

“Is it about something I do well, like running?” It could be. It should be. I hope so.

“Is it a familiar phrase or motto?” You’ve heard me say it a million times.

“When was the last time you said it?” I say it every day.

This went on for three weeks. Ironically, during that stretch Amy let me know that she had gotten used to being free of social media and it was kind of nice. “I feel like I have more time to just think and hang out. I’ve even been reading.”

Books. She was reading books. I felt victorious and deflated all at once. How did this get to be such an unusual pastime?

Then, one morning before school, she appeared in the kitchen with an air of exhilaration. “Mom, didn’t you say if I could figure out the password, I could have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat back?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I didn’t just mean you had to solve the puzzle. I meant you have to figure it out. You have to understand it. You have to learn a lesson.”

“OK, then. I have it. I’m sure of it,” she said. “Is the password, ‘schoolcomesfirst’?” *

Yep, that was it. She wasn’t permitted to change it (until now), nor was she allowed to forget that her digital life is not her priority.

It’s still a struggle to keep it all in perspective, and honestly, every so often I wish my mom would come along and change my passwords, just to help me reorder my priorities.

Our digital lives require that we exercise enormous self-discipline in order to disengage from the virtual world of work and friends and entertainment and news, so that we can actually work, and be with friends, and entertain others, and share the news about the lives we are living in the here and now.

Do I want a less digital life? I don’t know. I think I want a life that is balanced; that uses technology and media to enhance my work and relationships and doesn’t replace the real stuff.

Maybe I should change my own password: Lifecomesfirst.

lessdigitalHere’s a little Internet break for you. Right now, before you do anything else online….
Come up with a hypothetical password that expresses what you want most out of life.

Enter to win a copy of The Perfect World Inside My Minivan, simply comment below about a time when you or someone you loved needed an intervention, or share your HYPOTHETICAL password from the Internet break above. For extra entries, follow Marybeth on Twitter or share this post on Twitter, tagging @MaryBethHicks and @darcywileywords. Be sure to comment separately for each entry. This giveaway ends Friday, November 1st at 12 midnight, Eastern Time.

{I’m linking up with Nester for her annual 31 Days blog get together. Don’t want to miss this series? Be sure to subscribe by entering your email in the box on the homepage sidebar. Find all posts in the series here.}

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