Parenting, Addictions, and Technology

For many parents, the cultures of technology — gaming, social media, texting — seem foreign, strange, and uninviting. At the same time, our kids have transferred much of their interpersonal developmental into the online world, where parents don’t see what’s happening. For the first time in the history of humanity, young people are growing up in a world their parents don’t understand. In turn, those parents — whose fundamental job is to guide their kids through the labyrinth of childhood and adolescence — have themselves been drawn into a world of digital distraction: smart phones, television recording devices, DVD players in the car. The cultures of technology have created their own gravity, and we are all pulled inexorably toward it.

We should consider the implications of the mindless advance of technology cultures and devices. And, if we have concerns about this advance — which sometimes seems unstoppable — we should do something about it. Below are some suggested approaches and strategies that can be used to understand and deal with the avalanche of technology exposure that we are all grappling with.

Be mindful about screen time

Children and adolescents spend, on average, between 40 and 50 hours each week in front of computer, television, and game screens. This is more time spent than in any other activity except sleeping. The consequences of this are varied and startling. About a third of children and teens are overweight and a fifth are obese (American Obesity Association). Moreover, children who watch two to four hours of TV per day have more than twice the risk of developing hypertension compared with children who watch less than two hours. The risks of hypertension for children watching four or more hours of TV are more than three times greater than for children who watch zero to two hours of TV. Additionally, every daily hour of screen time for children aged three or under increases the risk of an ADHD diagnosis (in adolescence) by ten percent. These various relationships between health risks and screen time are not coincidental. Research into the negative effects of screen time, especially in early childhood, is startling and ongoing.

Sometimes the solutions to complex problems can be fairly simple. For example, families who share and talk together during meals exhibit a greater degree of mental health than families who do not participate together in such activities. So, ask yourself: how often does someone at your dinner table use a digital device? And, if you are a parent, what do you model about technology use at home? How much television do you watch? How often do you use a digital device during mealtimes? Ask yourself another, simple question: Is this what you want? If full-time technological immersion is not what you want (and really, given the risks and consequences involved, it shouldn’t be), try a few adjustments to your family routine:

Don’t sacrifice interpersonal communication

Turn off the DVD player in the car. Use the time to talk. On long road trips, encourage kids to develop their imaginations and interpersonal skills. Don’t take the easy way out, and allow kids (and parents, too) to be lulled into the interpersonal silence encouraged by technologies such as DVD players. Learning to be together, learning to deal with boredom, learning to explore interpersonal communication in novel ways: these are foundational to human development and should not be replaced by technological distractions.

Turn off all devices during meals. Use the time to talk. Also, turn off all devices at an agreed-upon time in the evening. Again, use the time to talk, to debrief the day. (Kids need at least an hour per day of conversational time with their parents, and most get only a few minutes.) Also, turn off all devices one day per week. Use the time to be together. Limit recreational screen time.

Try to find various ways of reducing the colossal amount of time that we all spend in front of screens. This is especially important for young children, for whom research shows that increasing amounts of screen time have long-lasting consequences. Ideally, kids aged three or under should have little or no screen time; something in the range of zero to five minutes daily. Kids aged five to twelve can have a bit more; perhaps up to twenty minutes daily. And adolescents seem to do well with about thirty (recreational) minutes daily. These limits are much less than what is common. Yes, I know. But if I had to choose one, simple item to focus on, this would be it: limit recreational screen time.

Resist new and fancy gear

As a parent, you do not need to purchase everything that your kids say they need. They will not be cast-out by their peers for not having the latest (or any) gear. Most parents I speak with about this issue say that they would like to set firm boundaries about how much gear (gaming devices, smart phones, tablets, music devices, to name a few from an endless list) comes into the family home. But most also feel a kind of parental shame if they do not purchase the latest devices for their kids. Many parents would be thankful to see a more mindful approach among a greater number of their peers.

Besides, kids will thank you for having less gear. Yes, they will, because you will help them to find more interesting things to do (sports, service, cultural experiences, and so on). Besides, kids know about the detrimental effects of too much technology use. Just ask them. Kids prefer (healthy and fun) physical activity over technological immersion. You can test this out for yourself, by asking kids whether they would rather play a video game or play paint-ball. Encouraging (and modeling, and facilitating) physical exercise practices is one of the best things that adults can do for kids (the ideal is one hour daily for everyone).

But let’s be clear: you can’t just kick the kids outside; you have to go outside too. If you don’t go, none of this will work.

Explore the emotional benefits that kids derive from online cultures

Technologies encourage a wide range of online cultures, and kids derive many emotional benefits from their participation in these cultures. Parents and educators should also help young people to find ways of meeting these emotional needs in the non-online world (through sports, for example, or community involvement, or reading, or any number of healthy activities. Adults should also demonstrate greater curiosity about the cultures of technology that children and adolescents join. Let them show you the games they play. Participate with them in online activities. Assist them in developing awareness of the risks and benefits of online cultures.

Educate yourself about the evolving and complex worlds of online cultures. Spend time developing healthy online habits for yourself (this includes paying attention to parental cell phone use and television watching habits, which are both technology cultures).

Practice digital transparency

The single greatest risk for a young person is to have a computer in their room at night. This situation almost inevitably leads to reduced sleep, unsafe and inappropriate online activity, secrecy, and the many consequences that arise from the simple, developmental fact of limited impulse control among young people. Impulse control and self-regulation are perhaps the most important interpersonal skills, but they do not develop fully (in some people, these skills never develop fully) until at least age 25. Accordingly, all computers and televisions should be in public, family spaces (no computers in bedrooms except under direct supervision and collaboration).

Focus on self-regulation and collaboration, not surveillance

Kids will find ways around all types of computer surveillance strategies implemented by parents. At the same time, some type of access control (to prevent young kids from accidentally viewing inappropriate content, for example) may be required. Accordingly, use strategies such as access control transparently. Involve kids in developing an access control system and assist them in learning self-regulation skills.

Self-regulation is the most important skill in dealing with technologies. Beginning at about age five, kids and parents should talk about the compelling nature of technologies, and kids should start to learn to recognize the signals which indicate they should stop viewing the screen. Those signals typically begin to appear after about twenty minutes, and include reduced focus, bodily lethargy, eye strain (sometimes accompanied by a slight headache), and a greater tendency to drift and graze (as opposed to working on a single task). Kids need to learn to identify these signals on their own, by the time they are about twelve years old. (If they don’t, their use of technology tends to become problematic by age fifteen.)

Recognize that the psychological development of anyone born after 1990 is different from those born prior. Technology cultures are foundational to childhood and adolescent development today. The solution is not to avoid technologies but rather to understand them. Be an informed consumer and parent.

Talk things through

Technologies present many themes and opportunities for family discussion: privacy, digital identity, violence in gaming, marijuana use and gaming, addictions (in general), online bullying, social media addictions (texting, Facebook habits, etc.), and so on. Parents might also wish to talk with their kids about the troubling rates of adult depression, purposelessness, and addictions. These adult themes are related to the challenges our kids face: why would they want to enter the adult world — with its challenges, hurdles, and seeming pointlessness — when technology cultures such as gaming and social media seem to offer so much more engagement and purpose?

In general, adults could offer greater mentorship to young people than we have been willing — so far — to provide. Most of us have opted-out, have left the field of engagement, because we don’t feel comfortable in the cultures of technology. We’re not geeky. We did not grow up with the technologies our kids are using. We can’t relate. But this is our challenge, and our call. Every age calls its inhabitants to action. Why should we expect our age to be any different? Why would we want it to be?