Digital World: Love It or Leave It

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As parents we have a love-hate relationship with technology. We love getting information quickly and staying in touch with our children. We love that we can avoid a trip to Red Box and pull up Netflix instead. We love shopping without the hassle of traffic and parking. We love that we can even do our jobs from home in pajamas with the use of a laptop. We love all that and free babysitting at the touch of the power button.

Although technology makes us more available, the expectation is that we’re always available. We lose the benefits of downtime and disconnecting from the world. Phones keep us connected to our children but they also create distance between us. Phones in the car and at mealtimes robs us of the opportunity for meaningful connection. Some of the most important conversations with our children occur in the car and at meals and bedtime.

Screen time makes for a great babysitter when in a crunch. It can also be a poor substitution for developing imagination, creativity, and delayed gratification. A young mother recently shared an observation while waiting at the pediatrician’s office. Every infant and child was engaged in screen time on their parent’s smart phone or tablet while a movie ran on a screen in the waiting room. One mother was unable to call her child back to her chair so she held her phone in front of his face and “led” him back to her chair. Children and teens who “need” screen time to fall asleep are missing the natural process of reflecting on their day and the ability to self-soothe.

There is an abundance of digital resources available to parents that market their products as educational and enriching. Unfortunately, what holds an infant’s attention doesn’t satisfy a toddler or preschooler. As a result the content has to be more stimulating while requiring nothing from the child. It’s an entirely different experience being held and read to or engaging in imaginative play with blocks and baby dolls. Children are mesmerized by what they see on screens causing parents to assume that there is some intellectual enhancement occurring. What’s really happening is an infant and child is losing precious developmental time: time to touch, hear, and interact with his environment. A real person interacting with a child is far more valuable than a screen talking at a child.

Infants and children are not the only ones who are negatively influenced by technology. Pre-teens and teens are immersed in social media and video games. Dr. Dan Siegal’s extensive research on the right and left hemispheres of the brain addresses how social media and screen time impact social development. The left hemisphere of the brain is logical and literal while the right hemisphere processes feelings and the more subtle signals that are important for social development. Without context (facial expressions, tone of voice, subtle meanings), the left side is left with reading letters and words without the deeper social meaning and connection.

There also seems to be increasing concern about the number of hours children and teens spend playing video games. The result is less time playing outside, interaction with family, and more time escaping into a world they believe they can control. Time spent in a digital fantasy world robs them of time in real life where children and teens have to learn how to be social and work out conflict with real people.

Social media minimizes social filters. What you say in a text, you might never say directly to someone. Lack of a filter may be one of the reasons more “drama” is occurring in middle school and high school. This age group is more likely to have a phone and less adult monitoring. That provides an opportunity for pre-teens and teens to engage in communication that is unfiltered and socially disruptive. Prior to children and teens carrying phones, parents were more likely to hear inappropriate conversations and intervene, thus using the opportunity to teach and redirect.

Children and teens are not the only ones who become consumed with social media and screen time. It’s a little surprising but not uncommon to hear kids say their parents are always on their phones. Neither is it unusual to see families in restaurants or going on a walk with both parents engaged with their phones.

Technology is moving much faster than our ability to develop healthy boundaries. We have to model for our children how to balance phones, tablets, and screen time in healthy ways. A young girl demonstrated this well when her dad’s work calls repeatedly interrupted their family dinner. She told her dad there was something on his phone that would take care of that problem. Curious, he handed her the phone. She immediately pressed the power button.

Love it or hate it, technology isn’t going away. The biggest challenge is not learning how to use it, but rather how to unplug from it and power down.

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