Technology is almost a sentient being, having a will of its own that projects itself inexorably into our lives. While these ubiquitous devices, that often feel like extensions of ourselves, have extraordinary benefits, use of them has an impact on the brain. The brain has an internal gardener that is forever pruning back some neural networks, while allowing others to grow and thrive. We must keep this in mind as we consider child development in the digital age. How much screen time is too much? How do we help our children achieve balance? Which cyber activities are the most beneficial, and which carry the greatest risks? To answer these questions, we need to take a developmental approach, one that is mindful of the milestones children need to complete at different stages in their growth.
The goals for the school-age child, let’s say 6-10 years of age, are to reinforce the development of real-world skills and a sense of competence or mastery. They also need to become adept at establishing and maintaining relationships with peers, along with playing in ways that foster the ability to resolve conflict and to strategize. They must acquire in these early years the ability to control themselves, or self-regulate, and parents need to help them begin to learn responsibility by doing homework, chores around the house, and getting themselves ready for school and other duties. One of the great risks during this stage is that video games, and games on the smart phone, will become a primary source of entertainment, and a substitute for adventure. When this happens, we often see stagnation in social skills, and even avoidance of interaction with adults. In addition, children who get heavily engaged in these activities neglect homework and household chores.
This is becoming increasingly common! A tendency toward excessive, or even addictive, indulgence in cyber-based amusements also seems to be rooted in these early years. Therefore, it become crucial for parents to take steps to foster a family dynamic that sets limits and expectations for technology, as well to encourage discussion around this topic, especially with regards to Internet safety. In my book, Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, I recommend that families make technology a frequent topic of discussion. Consider, as part of such discussions, talking about and putting in place the following recommendations that are designed to help you raise balanced and competent children, as well as to maximize family time.
Kevin’s Top Five Technology Tips
1. Have at least some tech-free time as a family. Don’t allow smart phones at the dinner table, for example.
2. In addition to tech-free time, have tech-free zones. Many families I work with choose to use the family room for this purpose. Cell phones, video game consoles, laptops, iPads, and computers are not allowed in there.
3. Set a maximum time allowed on video games and the computer. I recommend no more than two hours a day.
4. For each minute spent on the computer or video game, require a corresponding minute of exercise. This will allow you to combat the tendency for technology to create sedentary and obese children.
5. No TV’s, computers, or video game consoles in the bedroom.
Incidentally, parents must follow these rules too! If you allow your children to police you as well, it will empower them, and serve to create a more harmonious and balanced family. With these steps, parents can communicate the all-important principle that Internet access is not a right but rather a privilege. Meeting target behaviors and certain expectations are required in order to receive and maintain that privilege.
These early school years are also a good time to start teaching about Internet safety. They need to be made aware of several important factors:
1. Passwords are not to be shared.
2. Screen names should not convey identifying information.
3. Never give out your address, age, or phone number online.
4. Report any bullying activities to a parent.
5. If someone you do not know is trying to converse with you online, do not respond and tell a parent.
As your child gets close to the teen years, this discussion should include mention of sending out inappropriate material via text, social networking, and email, and discuss legal ramifications of such activities. In addition, of course, you should make your teen aware that anything he or she posts online could become part of an enduring record that might come back to haunt him or her. In next week’s post, I will go into the implications of technology for teens in greater depth. No matter what the age group, however, the overriding principles are the same: safety, balance, and awareness.