With the holidays here, no doubt there will be homes filled with more technology than ever come the first of January. As you contemplate the purchase of new phones, computers, video games, and tablets, consider how you can add more technology safely and wisely.
Understanding the threat
While bringing a myriad of benefits to children and adults, any powerful tool brings with it both the good and the bad. In the case of electronics, we are just beginning to understand the threat all of these devices present for our children. Here are a few of the major threats to remain aware of:
Continually eroding attention span: Research is suggesting that children spending more time with technology have less ability to sustain attention, and expect more movement and change in their environment. While very comforting to the ADHD brain, more TV or video weakens attention rather than strengthening it. Distractibility is rewarded in many of the virtual environments, and much of this rapid movement “skill” bears little resemblance to the challenges that we face in the real world or the classroom.
Immediate gratification needed: With technology almost always providing an answer or a way to engage our attention, the more we use technology to get instant gratification, the more we want it. For children, this can nurture more demands for immediate response and gratification from parents, which can be irritating and upsetting for parents.
Designed to be addictive: While perhaps many are unwilling to apply the term “addiction” to their relationship with electronics, there is no doubt of these tools’ intention. With massive amounts of resources spent, developers focus on how to keep highjacking your attention and the attention of your children. It’s not by accident that each year the newest app or game becomes more addictive. There is a very real dopamine response pattern being exploited to make the user want more.
Loss of authentic relationship skills: With more time spent staring at a screen, often lacking in any requirement for human social skill development, children spend less and less time engaged in real life activity that requires the mastery of good social skills. For some children, they can make this up easily. For others, the lack of learning opportunities leaves them isolated and alone, except for their virtual friends. And these friends bear little resemblance to real-life friendships, coming and going with no sense of true connection.
Easy connection with the good, the bad, and the ugly: As you are aware, there is access to every positive and negative experience on the internet. With smartphones, attached to very smart kids, it is critical to stay aware of the potential forms of entertainment or interest that develop. Only in recent years are parents faced with challenges they never thought of before by having to monitor a child’s electronic activity. And, the doorway to these websites, apps or discussions are only minutes away and thus change can happen quite quickly without parental awareness.
Exposure and vulnerability to social influence expands: The use of social media, photo sharing and group texts all create a relationship to peer influence that is greater than ever. The developing mind of the adolescent is prone to start caring more about the input of peers than parents, and the prevalence of social media opens the door for extraordinary influence from others. Teens can be blacklisted, ridiculed and threatened, all with a moments’ notice…yet with life-changing consequences. For certain personalities, the reliance upon peers for approval makes them unusually susceptible to “bending themselves” to become something they are not… to maintain approval.
While there are certainly other threats, these are some of the concerns to keep in mind as you consider introducing more screen time into your child’s life.
The mindset for managing technology
Ignore where the herd is going: If you look around, and take your lead from where the herd is going, you may be disappointed. Many are taking a casual approach, allowing others choices to drive their decision making. The statistics would argue that this is not wise, as a child’s mind is not prepared to adequately deflect all the threats outlined above…without your willingness to set strong limits. And this will position you outside the herd of parents following the movement toward more and more screen time. Stop. Walk away from the herd.
We call the shots: It’s important for children to understand that the gadget may be theirs, and given to them as a gift, but it’s important to make it clear that mom and dad still call the shots. In other words, it’s important for parents to take a strong position from day one and establish that the adults will be setting limits…whether the child or adolescent likes it or not.
We will monitor your activity: It’s critical that children or teens understand your position on their new gadget. It’s theirs to use, but parents will monitor use. I suggest reminding yourself that you can trust a child to be a child, and a teen to be a teen. In other words, even the best can be tempted by peers and the right persuasive message from an ill-intended source. Even the brightest and wisest is prone to the addictive elements described above.
I am not a fan of suggesting to children or teens that their phone can be used for private discussions. Instead, suggest that you will be watching and keeping them honest. They may balk, and many do. But, if you give the gift with this understanding, then you are remaining honest and transparent, which is critical.
Here are the limits: Clearly explain and establish what the limits will be. Depending upon their age, the websites they can visit, the games they can play and the time on screen will all change. But take a conservative view on this, and set clear limits in advance. And, don’t be flexible with those limits. Do not open yourselves up to negotiation and arguments over the limits. Just stick to it.
Don’t try to control kids. Control the device: This process gets quite easy if you invest in learning how to manage the devices easily, rather than trying to control your children with repeated verbal commands to ‘turn it off.’ Life at home can be calm and easeful if you focus on controlling the devices from your phone, using available tools and apps, and teaching limits with consequences.
When you bring these together, you can rest well at night. You can teach important lessons without conflict, and set up the future for a more easeful transition to more technology. Have a wonderful holiday season.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit TerrificParenting.com.