There are parenting lessons hidden in some pretty obscure places. I ran into one the other day that offered at least a partial solution to my most pressing parenting problem: teaching my teens and pre-teens to use social media responsibly.

This particular lesson began inside a 1920s-era factory near Chicago, and it boiled down to this: sometimes, the simple act of devoting your full attention to something makes it work better.

Factory productivity and parenting teens

Images courtesy of Harvard Business School, Baker Library Historical Collections and The Hawthorne Works Museum at Morton College

Imagine for a moment that you're a worker in Western Electric's Hawthorne Works factory. It's the late 1920s and you, alongside several thousand others, are working to put together parts of the latest technological advancement: the home telephone. (By 1910, there were an estimated 5.8 million telephones in American households—many of which were produced by the Hawthorne Works factory outside Hawthorne, Illinois.)

One day, a researcher commissioned by Western Electric comes into the factory. Although you and the other workers don't know it—his task is to determine whether there's a relationship between work environment and productivity. All you know is that the factory floor is now home to a steady stream of visitors with notebooks and pencils. You might notice that on some days the lights in the factory are brighter and on other days the temperature inside is warmer or cooler than usual. You might also be invited to speak to one of Elton Mayo's research assistants. He might ask you about the conditions inside the factory, giving you a chance to speak your mind.

As the results of their experiments begin to come in, the researchers become confused. It seems having more light inside the factory increases productivity. But dimming the lights also appears to increase productivity. Likewise, cooler temperatures initially increase productivity. But so do warmer temperatures.

In fact, the initially confusing results of this long set of experiments ended up having a profound effect on the social science theories of the day. But not because researchers had discovered the best lighting or temperature conditions for optimal productivity. Instead, they had unwittingly discovered what came to be called the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect is the phenomenon in which subjects in behavioral studies change their performance in response to being observed.

Productivity in the Hawthorne Works factory went up not because of heat or light—but because of the attention researchers were paying to the factory workers.

Paying attention to your teens

Now, it's important to note that the researchers in the Hawthorne Works plant didn't actually do anything to make the factory workers' lives better. They didn't end up changing the lighting or the temperature inside the factory permanently. All they did was express an interest in the workers’ experience. The factory as a whole was more productive—it did its job better—simply because people were paying attention.

There is a lesson here that isn't limited to factories.

It's human nature to crave attention from the people we care about. This is the reason babies cry (and, I suspect, the reason teenagers slam doors). We are built to seek attention and care from those around us. When we get that attention it makes us happier. It makes us feel important. It makes us do our jobs better.

So by extension, the simple act of paying attention to what your kids are doing online can have a positive effect.

Here's my favorite quote when it comes to this topic (it comes from a documentary CNN put together last year, called #BeingThirteen):

"Parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of [teens’] online conflicts."

When parents take an interest in what their kids are doing on social media, research tells us that it makes a difference. Kids suffer fewer consequences from the online conflict they are almost inevitably experiencing. They become more “productive” in the sense that they work harder at doing the right thing.

We’ve seen this in our own research, as we developed our RAKKOON app. Teens may initially resist the idea of giving their parents a window into their digital lives. But once the conversation about what’s happening on social media starts—they appreciate the fact that it makes some things easier. Like telling their folks about an incident of cyberbullying. Or an overly persistent boyfriend/girlfriend. Or a disintegrating friendship.

We know as parents that things will get better—that middle school isn’t forever. But our teens are learning all these life lessons for the first time. It can be awkward and uncomfortable for teens to open up to their parents about the hard things. It helps if there’s already an open window to facilitate these conversations.

So even if your gut tells you that being a good parent means stepping aside and letting your kids handle their own issues. Even if common sense says that experience is the best teacher. Even if no matter how hard you try, your teen just won’t open up. Know that just being there and paying attention counts.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: where else in life do you get points just for showing up?

Take a hint from that 1920s factory research. Because sometimes just giving something your full attention makes it work better.