Audio Astra: Navigating parenting in a threatening swamp of news

October 22, 2021 3:33 am

Eric Thomas writes: As parents, educators and other adults, we sometimes point to social media as the predominant cause of teens’ trauma. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

World With No Fear

Invisibilia, Jan. 15, 2015

Six years ago, I heard a podcast that I think about almost once a week. And this year — and especially this month — the themes of the podcast episode seem to echo louder than ever.

A 2015 episode of Invisibilia told this story: An academic researcher in the 1970s was curious about the natural lives of children. That is, he was curious about what children did during their time outdoors while away from adults. What he found in the short-term (that kids love to make fart noises to entertain themselves) is less relevant here than the long-term discovery.

What Roger Hart found, after years of study, is that the parents of those small-town Vermont children became more restrictive of their children each year. At the start, “Even 4- or 5-year-olds, like the ones in the woods, traveled unsupervised throughout their neighborhoods, and by the time they were 10, most of the kids had the run of the entire town.”

Years later, Hart found that parents had limited the territory where their children could roam unsupervised.

“There is no free range outdoors. Even when they’re much, much older, parents now say, ‘I need to know where you are. I need to know where you are at all times,’ ” Hart told Invisibilia.

This wasn’t a single generation of parents quickly fencing in their children. In some cases Hart was able to follow the children he had documented in their adolescence to themselves becoming parents. Those very same children, who remained safe while sharing goofy fart noises in the woods in the 1970s, drew ever-closer boundaries for their own children’s explorations. For years, parents have been eliminating the physical terrain of our children’s wanderings.

That report was six years ago before we hunkered down for real. We blame COVID-19 for keeping our kids indoors. We blame the media for scaring us to death. We blame the cars that drive too fast down our streets. We blame our teens for not even wanting to leave the house. Regardless, our pandemic children are literally sheltered.

As the Invisibilia episode points out, our instinct to hold them close makes sense. Parents wade through coverage of the threats that endanger our kids. The news media our grandparents read only gave them daily dispatches of the threats through a hometown newspaper. Now, we hear about every threat from everywhere and at every moment of the day.

Consider the last few weeks in teen news. Instagram and Facebook ignore clear evidence of how their algorithms taint teen girls’ body image. Kansas City area school kids are threatening the youngest high schoolers, petitioning to bring back slavery and proposing to attend high school dances with racist signs. The Topeka Capital Journal’s podcast reports that the most basic metrics of school success — absenteeism and truancy — are alarmingly high. How many of these stories would our grandparents have read from cities that are hours away?

It’s simply too much news about our kids, leaving parents frayed and raw.

Listening to weekly podcasts for this column, I often pop in earbuds while doing chores around the house. The world news is often so grim that I respond gruffly when my children force me to pause the audio so they can chat with me. This irritability can come even before I hear the day’s news from my dear children themselves, with their own unnerving school encounters and overwhelming academics.

Then there is the world surrounding our children. As Lawrence family psychologist Wes Crenshaw said on this week’s Up To Date, “The world is such a multivariable equation with confounding variables. We have political change. We have COVID. We have the economic situation that is sort of puzzling, the unemployment situation, inflation. There’s a lot of variables that are impacting everyone.”

Those unsettling variables make our teens more aware of their emotional strengths. Last week, I asked a table of students what their personal “unfair advantage” is. Many adults might answer something like, “I’m uniquely positioned to find logistical efficiencies for my clients.” However, these 2021 high school students see self-awareness of their own mental health as their unfair advantage. 

“I’m an honest friend,” one student said, looking at me unflinchingly.

“I make people feel comfortable sharing,” another student said at the same table.

The third shared how well she relates to people throughout her school.

This awareness comes from their young lives overcoming challenges fed to them through a firehose of information that would have seemed like science fiction six years ago. Our teen students are the product of an age of racial unrest, political tension and looming climate change. The ability to emotionally cope is their superpower.

As parents, educators and other adults, we sometimes point to social media as the predominant cause of their teen trauma. We note that these apps are shredding our teens’ appetite to sleep, to exercise, and even to have sex. What can we do to save our kids from technology that is optimized to addict us?

Maybe we don’t need to do anything. That’s what technology columnist Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times wrote last week, saying: “Is social media a danger to teenagers? The answer is: We have no idea.” 

He details how “Comic books, television, rock music, rap music, disco, video games, Ebonics and political correctness are among the subjects that have generated mass panic in the past.” In his judgement, these panics are often overblown.

Yet, we wonder, what if social media is more threatening? What if we are gifting our teens an addiction when we gift them a phone?

In the end, parents make hundreds of tiny decisions that draw bright lines in their children’s lives. We decide when the phone can be on, when the apps can be downloaded and where the phone sleeps each night. There are so many small decisions. Using Snapchat at 10:59 p.m.? That’s OK. Using Snapchat at 11 p.m.? That’s forbidden. The distinction is at once arbitrary and vital to parents who swim in a stew of alarming mental health predictions about their kids.

So, what can parents do? I can only speak to my solution. I’m going to keep listening to experts. After years of thinking I knew enough, I signed up for a workshop next week on regulating our teens’ digital lives.

But most importantly, I am pausing the podcasts and taking out my earbuds when my kids are around. At the very least, their voices need to be heard.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.