Do you carry a smartphone? Do you use it to access the web and get instant answers to everyday questions like, “When was the last time an NCAA team was undefeated?” Do you keep your calendar there, detailing work, home and kid’s activities? Do you bank from your phone? Pay bills? Use social media to keep in touch with far away family?
Technology is a wondrous and helpful tool! At the tip of our fingers, with laptops, tablets or phones, we have access to a nearly infinite amount of knowledge – practically all the information in our cosmos is gathered there. We have apps to save time and money. We can truly feel a part of our cousin’s life, even though she lives in Wyoming. Technology has changed our lives so much that we really can’t imagine going back.
Are you concerned, however, about how technology is affecting your child? Are you afraid it is affecting your relationship with your child? Are you concerned that screens are affecting the dynamic of your entire family?
Screen time – television, smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer – has an effect on our children of all ages and it affects our families as we grow and mature. Here are simple ways to tame technology in your home and to teach your children responsible habits as they grow.
At your baby shower, a friend gives you a set of Baby Einstein videos and on the box, it says, from birth to 2 years. Now, put that box away and don’t touch it until after your child turns 2.
Alzein Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before the age of 2. Screen time in infants and toddlers affects them negatively, both psychologically and physically. Your child’s brain triples in mass in the first year of life and their experiences during this time profoundly influence brain development. Screens delay language development as there is no interaction with a live human, no conversation, no facial reaction to the sounds and expressions your child is making. Screen time is linked to the development of Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD, as the fast-paced images and songs rewire the brain for those shorts bursts. Life itself moves at a slower pace and kids with heavy screen time early in life have a difficult time dealing with that. Parents who give kids lots of screen time tend to read aloud to their kids less frequently and for shorter periods of time, which also negatively impacts reading skills.
So how do you keep a toddler occupied while you make dinner? Pull out some pots and spoons and let them bang away. Sing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. Let them scribble with crayons and big sheets of paper. This way, you will respond to their sounds, you will look at each other – you will interact – the absolute best way an infant learns.
And think about this when you consider just keeping the TV on for “background noise”: you’ll speak about 940 words an hour to your child without a screen. With a screen, you’ll speak about 170. That’s a huge impact on your child’s language development!
When your child enters pre-school, kindergarten and during elementary school, screens can have big benefits. Educational shows such as Sesame Street, appropriate science programs and more can make larger concepts easier to understand. How did you learn that conjunctions hook up words, phrases and clauses? Generations of kids learned “and” “but” and “or” were the most useful conjunctions from Schoolhouse Rock.
When you were a child and posed a question at dinner time, did your parents tell you to get out the encyclopedia and look up the answer? Well, now those screens are encyclopedias – and they are much more fun to access than those huge books. They also have the most up-to-date information. Your children can now find, on reliable websites, the answer to any school problem. You can help them through a science experiment with YouTube, find step-by-step math instructions, and get accurate answers to grammar and punctuation questions. Technology opens the world of knowledge to our children!
However, parents still need to keep tight control. Excessive screen time is associated with a lack of exercise and obesity issues. Kids in this stage of development need to be very active to develop physical coordination and to develop real relationships with peers, friendships and social skills. They need involvement with sports, dance, any kind of movement and teams of peers. Screen time at this age also interferes with family interaction. They spend less time reading, resulting in poorer language skills. This translates into lack of academic success.
Limit your child’s screen time to no more than 2 hours a day – and remember that this includes all screens – computers, tablets, phone and television. Keep screens out of your vehicle. If you need to concentrate on driving, audio books with no images are a much better choice. Remember too that your car is the very best place for conversation. Without screens or other distractions, you can focus on your child, ask questions and get real answers. Many parents report talking with their kids about very big issues in the car – it feels secluded, private and safe in that enclosed space.
Keep screens out of bedrooms. No TV, because you should be watching with them, to know exactly what they are consuming. No computers in bedrooms, because while the internet is a wondrous place of knowledge, it is also a door to violence, anger, and pornography – hosts of images and sounds that are not appropriate for your child to view. Make sure any computer use happens where you can easily see the screen.
As your kids get into middle-school, technology becomes almost vital to their lives. As they start thinking about life decisions and tacking towards career concepts, they’ll find that about 90% of all jobs now require computer skills. It is very important that your children know how to properly access and use technology – for research, for papers, for presentations, for every day communication. In middle school, cell phones begin to be more common. As their social life blooms, the need to stay in touch the way “everyone else” does increases.
Do you remember your mom or dad picking up the telephone extension in the kitchen – very quietly – and listening in to conversations? Maybe mom or dad surreptitiously went through school bags or notebooks to discover exactly what was going on in your life?
Parents today find that nearly impossible to do. Kids carry on conversations everywhere – and there is no way to hear the other end of it even if they are talking at home. Texts can be quickly deleted. Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat accounts can be hidden. Children can be leading lives polar opposite from the ones their parents think they’re leading. Children who were once quick to chat about school and friends, smiling and open about their lives and are now quiet and closed, crabby, angry and withdrawn may be having huge problems that they want to hide from mom and dad – and technology can make that very easy.
In middle school, cyberbullying begins in earnest. If your child is having trouble socially in school, home is no longer the safe haven it once was. The students causing problems from 8 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday now have 24/7 access to your child, to bully and abuse them, through texting and social media.
Parents – you are the parent. You are allowing your child access to technology. It’s not their right. You protect their health with doctor visits, vaccinations, dentist appointments. It’s your responsibility to protect their mental health too – and that means they must allow you access to their technology devices. Follow them on Instagram, friend them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter. If they won’t give you the password to their phone, suspend service. If you can’t get into their laptop, take it away. Yes, it seems harsh, but it’s your responsibility to go through their accounts and communications. This is the absolute best way to discover symptoms of depression, anxiety, drug use and sexual activity – all issues that affect the health of your child.
Explain your need to search honestly to your child. Tell them what you’re looking for and why. Detail to them how destructive cyberbullying is – to both parties. Ask questions about images and messages they’ve received. Point out real-life instances where students are arrested for sending inappropriate photos. Explain why they are inappropriate. Their brains aren’t developed enough yet for them to fully understand the long-term consequences of their actions, so concentrate on short-term effects. Explain that sexting a photo to a boy or passing along one they’ve received now can mean not making a team in high school, rather than “you’ll never get a good job” – to them, that career is quite literally a lifetime away.
Talk with them about accessing information of a sexual or provocative nature. Explain that the biology of sex and reproduction is far removed from the emotional relationship between human partners. Don’t be embarrassed about sexual questions – understand that your child is asking you about science and relationships! Encourage questions of all kinds and make it clear that sexual confusion in adolescence is completely normal, and that inappropriate images including violence and degradation will not give them answers. Prevent your child from early sexualization by having real conversations about the media they are exposed to. Set rules about what media is appropriate and what is censored. Screen movies and TV shows for messages that send sexual messages to younger children. And ask, talk, ask, talk and ask your child about what they think and feel about messages that do make it into your lives.
With exceptions for homework projects, keep that screen time limit to 2 hours a day. Insist on absolutely no screens at family dinnertime. Place computers and cell phones in a separate room, away from your kids, after 9 pm. Your child should be reading, be involved in extracurricular sports and clubs – and you may have to push them hard to make it happen.
As your child moves into high school, technology becomes ever more a Catch-22. Schoolwork and social lives are both pushed more and more to the cyber world, and good technology skills greatly enhance academic success. Learning more about and experimenting with software, programming, and hardware will better prepare students for satisfying and profitable positions in an ever-increasing digital world – not to mention succeeding at college-level courses.
On the dark side, one in eight teenagers are likely to suffer from depression and now studies indicate that statistic will increase as heavy technology use increases. Heavy screen time is strongly associated with lack of sleep time and sleep quality, resulting in fatigue, which increases the risk of depression. Sleep deprived teens are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, 50% more likely to binge drink, and more likely to drive while drunk. Teens who are sleep deprived are more likely to indulge in risky sexual behavior as well.
Using phones, tablets or laptops as electronic readers will disrupt sleep, as our brains believe the light emanating from these devices is daylights, so shuts off the production of melatonin, the chemical needed to fall asleep. Many teens, when waking in the middle of the night, check social media and thereby give their brains a “kick-start” to wake up, disrupting the ability to go back to sleep quickly.
Teens who are intense and heavy gamers – spending 33 hours a week – have 25% more likelihood of depression than teens who play less than 21 hours. Heavy gamers have more difficulty solving real-life problems and have a more difficult time overcoming stress and depression.
Teens with heavy screen time are – again – much more likely to have obesity issues, with less physical activity and less face-to-face peer interaction.
With unrestricted use of media of all types, teens are also much more likely to access information that is age-inappropriate and unhealthy. Keep the conversation flowing with your teens – each and every day – about sexual and inappropriate digital behavior. Show them articles about teens caught in these situations and ask them their opinions. Ask more questions than give answers. Find out how they think and what they understand about the permanence of the internet and digital information. Ask what they think about celebrities having photos exposed, or what they think about celebrities purposefully posting very private images. Explain how sexting can result in serious, life-changing child pornography charges – and what their lives will look like as adults if they engage in it.
Tell your teen to shut those glowing devices off at least at hour before going to sleep, to help their brain release that melatonin. Keep a charging station of everyone’s electronics in the kitchen or family room so they aren’t used in the middle of the night. Stick to your two hour daily limit as much as possible, making homework and research a priority, and making social media and funny videos the very last item on your teen’s list of things to view.
In college, that cell phone can be a lifeline for your child. For a student struggling with homesickness and anxiety, your support via a text or instant phone call on the way home from an overwhelming class or after an encounter with an unreasonable roommate can make all the difference. Your child will be less likely to engage in dangerous behavior like alcohol and drugs when you are digitally present to touch base or supportive of emotional upheaval.
However, high frequency cell phone users in college tend to struggle academically, with lower grades. It can also cause higher anxiety and lower life happiness when students don’t know how to “say no” to cell phone use. Encourage your child to turn off the screens when in class, to stay off of social media as much as possible, to turn off screens when doing homework. Tell them to replace gaming with getting out there. Encourage them to get involved in their new school and community, to join clubs and extracurricular teams, to discover new interests and meet new kinds of people they haven’t encountered before. Remind them to exercise regularly.
Are you reminded of families you’ve seen – maybe in restaurants – that were together physically but completely separate in their own little screens? Not just the kids – but mom and dad too. Maybe you’ve seen adults eating dinner together, but not speaking, just concentrating on their individual phones? We’ve all seen this type of thing – or sometimes, it could be us at that table.
Parents and adults also struggle with screen addiction. We’ve seen many parents too into Facebook to pay attention to their child who is trying to get their attention. A screen can be like a drug, with rewards zapping your brain with dopamine and keeping you entranced, but disconnected from your family and friends.
Look back at the guidelines we recommend for older teens – and put them in place for yourself. Keep recreational screen use to 2 hours a day. Set a timer when gaming. Use social media at a minimum. Stay away from the dark side of the internet.
Technology has changed our lives in just the last two decades more than our lives have changed in the last century. It is amazing and wonderful that we can hold so many resources, so much knowledge and so much fun in the palm of our hands. We just need to be aware of the dangers of this ever-evolving, ever-present facet of our daily lives to our children and to our families, and put in place the simple safeguards needed to keep us all happy, healthy and well.