Parents and guardians are often concerned about the long-term impacts of digital technology on child development; many parents are unsure what they should be doing to ensure that children are being properly protected from the negative impacts of technology.
One of the most important things to remember is that technology is, by itself, not going to wreck our kids. In fact, there are many potential benefits of using technology. Digital technology can provide opportunities for us to connect like never before:
- It can provide access to information
- It can help us find resources
- It can help us to solve problems
But it can also lead to problematic behaviors if not used properly. The more we understand about how our use of digital technology impacts us, the better we will be able to make informed decisions and teach our children to be responsible users of technology and digital citizens.
What do we know?
Children are being exposed to digital media at younger and younger ages. Most children have used a digital device prior to their first birthday. By grade 4, 25% of children own their own mobile digital device. While it might be tempting to ban technology completely or to rely on some form of digital blocking app, the reality is that these tactics are seldom effective by themselves.
We can’t rely on technology to save us from technology, nor can we bury our heads in the sand and cut our kids off from the world completely. This is the environment that our children are growing up in; it is our responsibility to help them learn how to use technology safely.
What can we do about it?
Examine our own media use.
What message are we sending to our kids? In a study that we conducted, 30% of parents indicated that they felt addicted to technology. Most adults check their phones before they do anything else in the morning, and most check their phones multiple times during the day. While it is true that there may be times when our children should not be held to the same standard that we set for ourselves, we do send messages to children about our priorities, and how important digital media is if we have problems regulating our own use of digital media. Parents can model responsible technology use and thereby help their children develop positive habits early in life.
We would never send our kids out the door to walk to school without first teaching them how to cross the streets safely and what to do if they are in danger. However, we often give our kids their own digital devices without helping them to understand how to safely use it and what to do when they encounter content that is questionable. We need to teach our children to be critical consumers of digital content. If children own their own phone with a data plan or have access to wireless, they will be making decisions about what content is appropriate or inappropriate.
TIP: Wherever possible, use technology with your kids and model appropriate use. This can also provide opportunities for conversations.
Some families engage in a “media-fast” for one day a week or have places in their homes where digital media use is not allowed (e.g. the dinner table or the bedroom). Once we set aside these times or spaces, replace screen time with other activities.
The problem that many people face when trying to restrict their use of digital media is that as soon as they turn it off, it is all that they can think about.
TIP: Instead of just trying to go “cold-turkey”, do something else. This will help you to take your mind off it (and if you choose a physical activity – you can also get some exercise).
In time, the cravings will diminish and most people who engage in a “media-fast” report that they feel happier than they did before and are amazed at how much time has been freed up.
Conversations at the dinner table are one of the best opportunities that parents and children have to connect. When we are all using our devices at the table, there is often little to no conversation. One of the challenges that children have is regulating their use of their devices, allowing them to have their devices in their rooms can lead to sleep problems. Removing the devices provides opportunities for a more restful, complete sleep and help children to be more alert and prepared to learn in school.
If you or your children are not ready to take a complete break from digital media, but still would like to make some improvements, try turning off your notifications. Many online sites, social media platforms, video games are designed specifically to keep users coming back repeatedly. Notifications for social media and/or gaming can start to act as cues to us to check our phones, which then leads to reflex-like responses to the notifications themselves (with the accompanying dopamine release in our brain, which acts as a further reinforcer of our behavior). Turning the notifications off can start to stop this reflexive response and force us to be more active in our use of digital media rather than just passive responders.
When, not if, children improperly use technology (e.g. accessing inappropriate content), try hard not to overreact. Kids’ brains are still developing; impulse control is especially hard for kids.
One of the worst things that we can do as parents is to shut down the lines of communications between our children and ourselves. If we discover that our children are doing things with their digital devices that we do not approve of, it is perfectly ok to have consequences and to enforce the rules that we have set up. However if we overreact to the situation, what we often end up doing is just pushing the behavior underground.
Keeping the lines of communication increases the likelihood that our children will come to us to seek guidance, ask questions, or for help when they are having problems. Although digital devices allow us to be in contact with our children like never before, an emoji can’t ever replace a real hug.