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Book Review: ‘Growing up Social’ by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane

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That there are more screens in our lives now than ever is probably something we all agree on. Even if we do not personally own one, screens are everywhere: on roads, in stores, at our workplace, in schools, ad nauseum. In my personal, non-expert point of view, screens are here to stay.

Thankfully, screens are not inherently bad – except maybe the very old sets that emit radiation at close range. I would even suggest that screens are an exceptional tool, creating windows into worlds we didn’t know existed before, worlds we could only previously imagine through the words of books or images of magazines. Through television shows and video clips available online, we not know details about animals in faraway lands, but we see how they move and interact with their environment. Screens have allowed us to go to the moon, to celebrate victories we had nothing to do with, and to cry in despair at tragedies affecting our brethren across the world.

Screens are also quite useful educational tools a parent can add to his or her arsenal, be it to stay in touch with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins around the world, or to teach children how to read, write, or think critically. But as any parent or parenting expert can tell you, the screen is only a positive force if its relationship with the family is wisely moderated. The responsibility to do so falls mainly on the parents, and it requires skills that we do not naturally possess but can acquire.

To be published on 1 September 2014, Growing up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World, is written by Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages, and Arlene Pellicane. They sum up the question of screens and children as follows: “Our children are profoundly influenced by what they watch. They pick up words, phrases, and values from television shows, YouTube videos, and virtual worlds. If we leave our children unattended with their screens, we must be prepared to accept the consequences. They may be using language that’s too coarse or too mature. They may be developing a stronger affection for their devices than for people. After all, devices bend to your every whim and people don’t.”

Growing up Social is a Christian book that centers on the spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being of not just children, but also their parents. However, it is a book that readers of all denominations striving to achieve balance in their lives can benefit from. For while a strong relationship with God inspired this book, He is not forced upon the reader. In other words, the authors’ belief in God is an integral part of the entire book without becoming preachy, leaving more than enough space for parents who do not believe in God but do believe in living a life of virtue to use the advice given in the book. One striking example of this came as the authors explore various love languages: “Parents have asked, “What is my child’s love language is gifts? Won’t she be hurt or feel unloved if I don’t get what she wants?” Even if your child’s love language is gifts, you still don’t have to provide everything she wants. Think of how God parents us. He doesn’t give us everything we want. Sometimes He says no to what we want; other times He say wait; and sometimes He says yes. God is our example in parenting. At times, we will say no to our kids because we know what they are asking for is not going to help them. Other times we make them wait because they are not ready for what they desire or it’s not in the budget.”

This section also reflects how Growing up Social is a parenting book that does not just focus on how to deal with screens, but on how to create a healthy environment in which we have control of screens. While it makes for a thicker read, contextualising helps understand the concept of parenting in a screen driven world and allows for the development of a healthy relationship with screens based on a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics at work. The age old complaint of children being more respectful of parents and adults, stronger academically, and more courteous in previous generations is not blamed on technology, but rather, on the family and societal dynamics surrounding its usage.

I also like how this book balances science and religion. As much as the authors believe in God, they also believe in science. They use it to understand the unhealthy dynamics within a family and to map a way from those unhealthy dynamics to what a healthy Christian family can look like. The book thus becomes a wonderful journey of discovery of the social forces that affect us all – even those of us who don’t have children. Of the many things that I didn’t know, the one that struck me the most is that “researchers are concerned that when screen time goes up, empathy goes down. Kids are exposed to violence in video games, which can desensitize them to pain in others, bullying, and acts of violence. The ease of online friendships – you can just move on to another friends if someone is bugging you – can make real-life relationships too frustrating. A University of Michigan study found that college students don’t have as much empathy as they used to. College students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than they were twenty to thirty years ago.”

Long-time readers of my blogs have oft seen the adage the road to hell is paved with good intentions gracing its pages, and won’t be surprised that this part of the book struck a chord in me: “In an effort to be technologically savvy, teachers in elementary school are showing their students how to engage with blogs inside the classroom. Kids as young as first grade are encouraged to leave comments and digitally engage. They are learning about getting and receiving feedback from other people. Unfortunately, social media can teach kids that the road to popularity is paved by likes and the number of comments and online friends one has. It’s hard enough for an adult to deal with disparaging comments online or a lack of comments, which communicates, ‘No one is interested in me.’ Imagine how much harder it is for children who don’t yet possess the emotional maturity to cope with the digital world. Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon calls ‘Facebook depression,’ defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.”

We all know that the internet is both a wonderful technological feat (Coursera! Khan Academy! Upworthy!) that, when not used well, causes a lot of harm (like in the case of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Meghan Meier, Ryan Halligan, Tyler Clementi, and in the recent attempt of two 12 year-olds to meet “Slenderman”). Books like Growing up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World can help everyone, not just those with children, make sure that their relationships are not negatively affected by an immoderate and unhealthy use of screens. For if we are not capable of using screens maturely, “if we are not alert, the information age may stunt our growth and create a permanent puberty of the mind.” (Shane Hipps, as quoted by Chapman and Pellicane.)

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