It's all coming together. The phone takes pictures, video game systems connect to the internet and social network sites have chat features and more video games. Even television, the one place that has somehow remained disconnected and just for watching, will soon be transformed to have all the features of a network connected computer. It won't be long before convergence conquers every screen -- it is the next big thing. This means that parents need to get proactive and think about its benefits and challenges to avoid being walloped by it (think Facebook and text messaging) down the road.
There are other aspects to convergence beyond just every screen being connected that need to be considered. Convergence is quickly happening between technology and the family. New technologies have transformed the basic ways that families communicate, find information and spend family time. Some examples: parents of little kids use iPhones and iPads as digital pacifiers. The places where families were once "stuck together" have evolved to places where everyone is connected with someone else via cell phones and text messaging. Blackberry moms and dads bring work to the family vacation because it is always in their pocket. The family photo is uploaded that night to a social network site and all the while GPS guides the way.
Finally, there is the impact of convergence on teens. The convergence of technology with hormones and shifts in social life. As technology becomes ever more wrapped up in the DNA of being a teenager there are developmental issues that need to be considered. Convergence means more and more places to learn about (or test the limits of) self-regulation, self-respect and the respect for others. For most adolescents, these areas of development are very much a work in progress and parents can't expect teens to be able to use these tools with the same developmental maturity that adults (some of the time) use them. We can expect digital teens to experiment with new technologies in ways that both impress and infuriate their analog parents. With all of this experimentation and excitement, parents have to provide safety and help regulate the amount of time given to screen activities. That being said, parents must recognize how passionate adolescents are about technology and find ways to provide them with an appropriate amount of trust and freedom.
If we accept that convergence will arrive shortly and that families and teens will continue to change because of it, it is time to make some changes that reflect the times.
1. Pulling the plug can't be the only answer:
Now that the screen is the hub of social life, school life and family life it makes the old parental go-to of punishing by taking away more difficult. If parents take away cell phones then they stop communication with friends but they also lose the ability to contact their child. If parents pull the plug on the internet it makes getting assignments and communicating with classmates about school work more difficult. If parents take away video game systems they may be taking away a major part of their teens' social life. Also, convergence means that the same tasks can be carried out from any screen. When parents take away one screen teens just move on to the next, the one that parents didn't think to take away. For the answer to this problem see #2 and #3.
2.Convergence means that parents need to get involved:
Getting involved means learning about what goes on in your teens screen life. It means treating the time kids spend in front of screens in the same ways time outside of the house is spent. Where are you going? Who are you going with? How long will you be there? These are all appropriate questions because convergence means that social life happens inside the house just as often as it does outside. Staying involved by setting intelligent limits is only half of the equation, for the rest of the equation see #3.
3. Get excited for convergence:
The families who are most effective in having positive relationships around technology have parents who understand and find ways to share in the enthusiasm of their kids' digital life. Parents who take the time to find out not only about what to limit but also what to encourage gain something crucial. They have credibility with their kids and this goes a far way in bridging divides between analog parents and digital kids. Teens need parents to help them separate the good stuff from the junk in their digital lives and this only happens when parents take the time to learn about the good stuff.
4. Safety first:
Convergence makes digital life more compelling and gives teens even more reasons to be in front of a screen. Parents must encourage safe use. This means taking time to stop and stretch, staying hydrated and getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. These may seem obvious to parents but for teens the combination of brain development, enthusiasm and young bodies that don't experience aches and pains make it difficult to look out for their health and well being.
5. Learn and teach the art of disconnecting:
Convergence takes away the gray areas and leaves only two options, connected or disconnected. Knowing how and when to disconnect is becoming an art and one that needs to be practiced. If disconnected time is considered important then families can work together to figure out ways to make the time rewarding. It will be far more effective if everyone is involved and if everyone can learn to appreciate what it feels like to not always be connected.
From this day forward, it should come as no surprise that purchasing a new gadget means bringing home another screen with far more features than expected. This is convergence: media that no longer discriminates between screens. Parents can either be caught off guard by convergence feeling that it has knocked down their doors and taken their lives/teens hostage or they can invite it in with a cautious sense of its benefits and areas of concern. Being prepared will help there to be less conflict in the home and opens up the bigger dialogue about how to best manage digital convergence in the lives of families and teens.