Electronic devices are all around us: as diversions, connectors and educational tools. For parents and children, technology is helpful, entertaining and damaging — all at the same time. So moms and dads need a plan to resist allowing children to latch onto an “electric pacifier.”
But pumping the brakes on tech use can be a tough line to take, as there are proven benefits to screen time. Without a doubt, tech skills are useful, and mastering them can translate into a lucrative career down the line. Technology is a bridge to knowledge — and we all know that knowledge is power. Children who grow up with computers or even regular video game access may be more inclined to explore the underlying technology of these devices. Interest in the flourishing STEM field is generally thought of as a good thing. At the same time, limiting access is important because there are risks to too much tech.
Smartphones are ubiquitous. TV screens are plastered on the walls of restaurants and retail establishments. Entire friendships begin and end online. Even schools may resist parental attempts to curb internet use and electronics when course outlines, homework and study guides are made available online.
Like anything, tech becomes damaging when used in the extreme. A child’s intense desire to watch, engage and play on devices can lead to conflict. Arguments erupt when kids flout, delay and debate age-appropriate responsibilities while watching or interacting with a screen. Parents’ feelings can turn to outrage when they discover that while their children were enjoying tech time, they blew off a school project or ignored household chores or other family commitments. Often we hear children defending their access to and use of tech, asserting that data is as necessary as oxygen and an absolute right.
While tech use can be good for some things, like developing hand-eye coordination, too much focus on screens contributes to weight gain and obesity, and impedes social development. Researchers warn that engaging in too much screen time can even damage the brain. Overuse gets children too accustomed to immediate gratification and response, a feeling similar to the damaging cycle of addiction. Excessive time with screens also diminishes feelings of empathy.
To establish limitations on technology, determine the parameters for tech use for your children and very deliberately create a family media plan. Outline screen-free zones and times, confirm device curfews, and choose and diversify your media. Set standards for good media manners and proper digital citizenship. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say parents need to be role models and deliberately put their own devices down when interacting with kids. Start by stressing the importance of media-free meals. Have your children turn in their personal devices at bedtime, ensuring sleep by charging them outside the bedroom. A recent study in the BMJ Open medical journal looking at how parents manage screen-viewing behaviors in young children says that, in many cases, children who understand limits can self-regulate.
Completely curb personal device screen time for preschool age children with the exception of Skype and Facetime to connect to relatives. Parents should instead focus attention on development through play with other children, age-appropriate toys and books. For children 6 and older, a balanced day includes school, homework time, ideally an hour of physical activity, social contact and sleep. Gently nudge your children toward focusing on their responsibilities and positive activities. Any spare time remaining in their day can then be allotted to screen time, but not beyond two hours.
It is crucial for parents to reflect on what leverage they hold to moderate technology use. That same BMJ Open study stated that tech should be seen as a reward and taken away as a punishment. Disciplining children for violating family rules should include separating your children from their devices for brief to extended periods of time. Tweens and teens can “pay” for tech use overages through extra chores. No matter their age, make it clear to your kids that at any time the router modem could be unplugged, the power cord confiscated, and their passwords scrambled.
Rachel Spector, MSW, has more than 20 years’ experience in the field of early care and education. She currently oversees funding for early childhood development, including Miami-Dade County’s QRIS, at The Children’s Trust. For more information, visit www.thechildrenstrust.org.