As 2016 rounds the corner to the finish line, few of us can say we haven’t spent a significant portion of this year gazing at screens. That’s especially so for teenagers.
In fact, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, in 2015 teens spent about one-third of each day (almost nine hours) consuming media, and children aged 8 to 12 spent nearly six hours per day, on average.
Compared to previous generations, this is a vastly different way to experience childhood.
What impacts do such dramatic alterations in human behavior have on families? As a parent, you might wonder if this should be cause for alarm.
Certainly, we can look at the significant advances in technology of the past decade or two and see the positive aspects.
For those of us old enough to have witnessed the onset and development of the internet age, it may seem dazzling. We tend to celebrate this new age, akin to the Industrial Revolution with its huge economic and social impact.
We now enjoy the convenience of having seemingly everything at our fingertips: the ability to maintain contact with everyone we have ever known; a dazzling array of opportunities and access to offerings from around the world delivered to our doorstep; and an endless stream of news, entertainment, and information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What’s not to love?
Surely, we must be moving toward a more open, prosperous, educated, connected, and fulfilled way of life, right? Well, maybe.
The negative aspects of this now ubiquitous technology are also becoming increasingly apparent—especially when it comes to children.
While the internet may offer a font of educational resources and an opportunity for social connection, it is also a source of inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and other unsavory elements most of us would rather distance our children from.
Numerous studies have connected excessive screen time to conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, depression, poor eyesight, sleep deprivation, and social anxiety, to name a few.
Even more alarming, recent research has shown that excessive screen time, with its constant flow of temptations and instant gratification, affects the brain’s frontal cortex in the same way cocaine does.
In August of this year, psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas Karderas told the New York Post that, in his experience, it is “easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.”
While the prospect of developing a serious disorder or addiction is scary, what may be most concerning is the insidious nature of casual screen use among children; it can rob them of time and experiences—the fresh air, the family interaction, the real world play.
But what it’s really robbing children of is their childhood.
So, what’s to be done?
Faced with these negatives, parents can feel at a loss. These are the times we live in, after all. Should we all just hide in our bubbles and pretend it’s 1985?
Well, why not? It’s interesting to note that many Silicon Valley elites restrict their children’s access to technology. New York Times writer Nick Bilton chronicled this insight when he interviewed Steve Jobs. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs told Bilton, adding that his kids hadn’t even used the new iPad yet.
Bilton saw this trend time and again among other tech giants. Chris Anderson (former Wired CEO and father of five) told him: “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
Evan Williams (a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium) told Bilton that “in lieu of iPads, [his] two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read anytime.”
While it can be very tempting at times to allow a glowing screen to occupy the attention of our children, and parents may have fears of their kids falling behind in technology or being socially encumbered, setting limits on screen use is probably a good idea.
If you’d like to curb the influence of screen time in your children’s lives, here are a few suggestions.
Set Overall Rules. Be clear about the general rules you expect your children to abide by. Ensure they understand the specific limits you’re imposing and why you’re doing so.
Designate Screen-Free Zones. The dinner table, Grandma’s house, bedrooms, etc., can all be set as screen-free places that you may find your children eventually favoring because of their screen-free nature.
Designate Screen-Free Days. Can your family stay screen-free for a whole day? If not, this is probably a challenge you should take on. Designate one day each week during which no technology is allowed. Pick up real books, go for a walk, and revel in the real world.
Encourage Productive Use of Technology. Teach your children how best to interact with their technology—seeing these screens as tools to create with rather than solely objects with which to consume content. Rather than watching endless videos one after another, encourage them to make and share their own. Perhaps they can blog about their favorite subject, draw pictures, practice photography, and so on. Obviously, lessons in privacy measures and safe use should coincide with such activity.
Set a Good Example. Perhaps the biggest challenge for parents is to exemplify a healthy relationship with their own screens. Audit your own screen use. Is it excessive? Do you sense the addictive qualities and see room for improvement? Are you choosing your screens when you could be choosing quality family time?
As we head toward 2017, technology’s impact on our family’s lives is undeniable. With some parental guidance and prudence, the benefits of technology can be enjoyed, and childhood need not be spent carelessly before a glowing screen.