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Children and Technology: What Is a Parent To Do?

Posted By Andre Solomita, MSW, LICSW

More and more often parents are coming to my practice concerned about issues related to their child’s technology use. I hear questions like: How much time is too much time for my kid to be connected to technology? What is this doing to my child’s brain and why does it seem like World War 3 every time I attempt to get my teenager to stop playing his video game? Is constant exposure to video games affecting my teen’s capacity for empathy, or worse is it potentially making him more violent? Is my child not learning and practicing basic social skills or making friends due to so much time online? What about Cyber-bullying, pornography, sexting, sleep deprivation, meeting strangers online and privacy concerns? The list goes on and on.

With ever-present laptops, smart-phones, tablets, and game consoles, our children are more connected to technology than ever. According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization providing research and education on media and technology, on average, teens in the United States spend 9 hours a day using media, with our “tweens” (ages 8-12) not faring much better with an average daily media consumption of 6 hours. Surprisingly this does not include technology use associated with school and homework.

The impact of all this media and technology on developing brains, social relationships and identity formation is just beginning to be researched. We have reason to be concerned according to John Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense Media who remarked in a CNN interview, November 2015: “I just think that it should be a complete wake-up call to every parent, educator, policymaker, business person (and) tech industry person that the reshaping of our media tech landscape is first and foremost affecting young people’s lives and reshaping childhood and adolescence.”

This “reshaping” is so new to parents that it is often confusing and frustrating for them to identify and respond to real risks posed by the near constant interconnection between their children and technology. So what are parents to do? The following guidelines are designed to support parents in navigating this new terrain.

1. Each Child is Different

There are similarities and differences in the way kids process information depending on their age, maturity, developmental level, personal experiences, cognitive abilities and temperament. Every decision a parent makes regarding their child’s access to various types of media and technology should be considered based on their child’s unique
capacities and vulnerabilities.

2. Set Limits

Set rules regarding expectations about technology use. Encourage your child to be a part of the negotiation process so they’re aware of the rules and the consequences if they are broken.
Common rules involve amount of time the child can spend on technology, access to web sites and video games, and whether they will be allowed to have a computer or smart phone in their bedroom. One practical rule is placing computers in common household areas. Insisting your child remove the smart phone from the bedroom at bedtime is also a good idea. Scheduling time your child can play video games (preferably after homework time) is helpful for kids who struggle with stopping or switching gears once they start playing.

3. Encourage Alternative Activities

It is easier than ever for our children to sit on the “virtual” sidelines and comment on what others are saying and doing, instead of participating. Often for kids who may be insecure about their own abilities, the temptation to avoid social situations and not actively engage directly with others is easily replaced by the virtual connection achieved online. Parents should encourage and if necessary, insist children engage in alternative activities, away from technology. Sports, clubs, outdoor activities, and the arts are interactive activities that support the development of social skills and growth.

4. Influence vs. Control

Unless you’re a computer geek, it is highly likely your teen (and possibly your tween) is more tech savvy than you and therefore knows how to visit internet sites, add APPs, get around parental blocks, and hide their internet history from you. Trusting your child to tell you the truth about what they’re doing online, how long they’re doing it and with whom could be a mistake. It is developmentally appropriate for tweens and teens to test limits, defy rules, and be influenced more by their friends than their parents. Recognize your child may not be telling you everything.

Most younger kids (9-14) benefit from direct supervision and support, which means parents need direct access to computer passwords, texts and internet history. If you don’t know how to do this, find someone to help you. Many parents question where to draw the line between allowing their children privacy and when to read and supervise everything.

With older teenagers, fostering open communication about your concerns as well as listening for any issues your child may be having is the most effective way to provide support and protection. Sooner or later your teenager will be making decisions about what they do online based on your guidance and influence and not on your direct control.

5. Stay informed

With the ever-changing landscape of social media and technology, it’s important to stay abreast of the latest news, research and helpful advice. The following resources will be a good place to start:

https://www.commonsensemedia.org

Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in The Digital Age
by James P. Steyer

The Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook, and Social Media
by Shawn Edgington

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
By Sherry Turkel

6. Ask if You Have Questions

Childhood and adolescence are difficult enough without the impact of technology and social media influencing every aspect of development. Like you, many parents are struggling with similar issues and concerns. Speak to parents, teachers and friends about your thoughts. It’s likely they too have similar questions and perhaps some answers.
If you continue to have concerns about your child, seek professional support. Technology and social media are not to blame for all mental health issues affecting children and teens but they do complicate and sometimes exacerbate developmental issues associated with psychological and social development.