By Michele Kambolis, family therapist and author of Generation Stressed: Play-Based Tools to Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety
Technology is changing childhood, with as many opinions on healthy usage as there are gadgets to distract us. While technology holds possibilities and benefits, there are known drawbacks associated with over-usage. According to the latest release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average 8 to 10 year old may be in front of a screen up to eight hours a day. Teens top the list as excessive tech users, with many dedicating up to 11 hours a day to texting and other screen activity. With technology use changing so rapidly, the old rules simply no longer fit the world we live in. Parents are left wondering whether a healthy balance exists. It is important to sit down and discuss tech usage with children and teens, and try to find the right balance.
- Talk About a Healthy Media Diet
When children understand that what we feed our mind is equally important as what we feed our body, they become more mindful about what they are consuming. Talk to your child about what they are seeing, hearing, and doing. Ask, has this time on technology been helpful or meaningful in some way? What have they discovered or learned? Co-viewing programs and talking with your kids about the pros and cons, all the ways technology helps improve lives, or threatens your quality of life, can get them thinking about the kind of impact technology might be having.
- Set Guidelines
Parents are all too aware of the need for technology guidelines. However, setting limits on something so pervasive in our homes can be easier said than done. The American Academy of Pediatrics has looked closely at the issue and recently set new standards; children under 2 should have little to no screen exposure, and children and teens should have no more than 2 entertainment hours of screen time per day. That’s a far cry from the current average. Just like any house rule, be specific and consistent with your expectations, including when, where and how they should be using it. Here’s the key: when a child understands why a rule is in place, they are far more accepting of the guideline. You’ll get further by saying, ‘I notice it’s time to power down so we can make room for family time’, rather than, ‘You need to turn off your computer now’. As they become better critical thinkers, kids come to understand their own limits, planning a healthy tech-life balance and making wise choices.
- Safety First
The types of activities children engage in while using technology can range from creative and educational to downright destructive. Work with your child to educate them about responsible technology use, including acceptable and safe behaviours. And while you don’t need to spy on your child’s every move, it is important that children understand you are aware and monitoring their online safety. Get curios about what is happening on your child’s screen; children love to be regarded as experts, especially by their parents.
- Disconnect to Connect
Disconnecting from technology gives children the kind of brain rest they need to synthesize information, become creative, explore and even connect with their sense of self. But it’s important to work together. Disconnecting should include parents too. Powering down all electronics at dinnertime, in the car, and when company is over is an easy standard for most. Even better, create technology free zones to promote play, creativity and connection. Crowding out screen time with other enjoyable activities sends the message that disconnecting is not a negative thing, but rather something to look forward to.
- Quality over Quantity
Recent studies show that active technology and screen time can actually help develop key skills; hand-eye coordination, language skills, social skills, memory and critical thinking can all improve when quality tech programs are used in moderation. Balance out social media and computer games with eBooks and educational programming; have your child choose a program that offers educational value during the first half of tech time, then leave room for them to choose something with sheer entertainment value. Keep in mind, technology should be used to enhance our knowledge, not replace real-life experiences, so link programs with meaningful conversation.
- Technology and the Brain
There is little yet known about the impact of technology on the brain, but we do know this: technology can improve visual-spatial ability, reaction time, increase focused-attention and the ability to identify details. On the flip side, playing violent video games or watching violent television is linked to lower brain activity in regions responsible for emotions and impulse control. Some studies show that more than four hours of screen time a day is connected to anxiety and depression, low levels of physical activity and social interaction. And lower levels of face-to-face connection means less of the kind of right-brain activity so critical to empathy development. The more technology a child engages in, the less room they have for key activities needed for brain development, like outdoor play, reading, hobbies, imaginative play and relationships.
- The Sleep Solution
If you’re worried about the impact of technology use before bed, your instincts are well tuned. The blue light from most screens decreases melatonin levels, contributing to poor sleep and increased anxiety. Consider giving technology its own curfew, placing all gadgets on their chargers at the same time each night, and lay them to rest well away from bedrooms. As a guideline, cut out screen time at least one hour before bed. Your child will not only sleep better, they will live better.
- Technology for Mindful Living
The most powerful tool we have for creating a healthy relationship with technology is our self-awareness. Internal cues tell us when we are distracted, disconnected or revved up from a computer game and when something on social media is making us feel ‘less than’ or inadequate. Ask what your child is aware of when they use technology; what thoughts enter their mind, what they are feeling, and what is happening in their body. You can even enlist technology itself; there are many apps that can aid in calming the mind, and clearing it of negative thoughts, creating mind-body balance. Smiling Mind, MindShift and The Thought Room all guide the user towards mindfulness skills and other tools for resiliency.
While our electronic universe has us working even harder to make sure our kids have everything they need, radical cultural shifts call in radical parenting attention. With small daily changes you really can create big results, cultivating a well balanced, tech aware, generation.
Michele Kambolis (MA) is a registered Child and Family Therapist and Parent Educator and a Registered Clinical Counselor dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues. Kambolis writes a popular weekly parenting advice column, “Parent Traps” for The Vancouver Sun and Postmedia Network chain of newspapers and is the author of Generation Stressed: Play-Based Tools to Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety. She is currently a candidate for a PhD in Mind-Body Medicine at Saybrook University.