Scientists may be debating whether our attachment to technology should be considered a formal addiction, but parents of school-aged children don’t need to wait for academic consensus to recognize that our devices have in many ways transformed our lives and family dynamic.
"It’s an interesting question about whether we’re addicted or just overly attached,” James A. Roberts, author of the forthcoming book Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? told The Huffington Post. “But is our cell phone use getting in the way of our relationships with our children or our work or family affairs? That’s the real question."
If you feel like you can’t capture your spouse’s attention as much as his tablet, or that your once-bubbly teen has been rendered silent now that she has a smartphone in hand, you already know that something isn’t quite right. We interviewed three technology and child development experts for their take on how to re-calibrate your family’s technology use. Check out their recommendations, below:
There’s no use in pretending that computers, phones and other tools aren’t an integral part of modern life, said Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. He calls specific time limits a hold-over from the days when all screens did was deliver passive entertainment. Now, children are expected to do homework, socialize and express themselves creatively using technology.
What's more, setting strict time limits will only make devices “forbidden fruit,” according to Rich. That's backed up by recent research from Lebanon that found, unfortunately, that children whose parents used screen time to discipline them had significantly more of it compared to kids whose parents didn’t use screen time to punish or reward.
Instead of pointing the finger at computer games as a mindless time-suck, help your child fill the time another way: Ask your kids to help you come up with a list of responsibilities and expectations and figure out what your child really wants to accomplish. Now that it’s summer time, that list may include sleeping eight hours every night, family dinner and hanging out with friends at the beach. Afterwards, figure out how much time they realistically have left over to veg out in front of a computer screen — and then let them have it, Rich advised.
“What you’re doing is re-prioritizing their life, and reminding them that they have a number of things that not only they need to do, but that they want to do in the space of a day,” said Rich. “Screen media can sometimes seduce them away from all that.”
“More is caught than taught,” said Roberts. "We can talk a blue streak about the proper use of a cell phone, but when we’re using it to drive or when we’re using it during family time or dinner, you bet the kids are going to pick up on that faster than everything you’re going to say to them.”
Roberts is a firm believer in tech-free zones of the house and times of the day -- for everyone. He’s a proponent of keeping devices out of bedrooms, off the dining table and away during family activities. He’s also attuned to the signs of problematic technology use. If, for example, a parent has ever tried to set limits on tech use and then finds their child secretly texting in the bathroom, there’s a problem.
Counterintuitively, Roberts espouses a tactic for tech monitoring that he calls “Hair Of The Dog.” To help you and your children monitor and restrict time on your smartphones, use certain apps that keep a record of how long you scrolled that day, or apps that let parents restrict the amount of time a child spends on their phone.
But most importantly, he concluded, parents who are disturbed at the way their kids are using tech had better take a long look at themselves before trying to lay down some rules.
Studies show that kids who use the internet in a “pathological” way are more likely to also be depressed, struggle with hyperactivity and have self-injurious or even suicidal behavior. But to Howard, a clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the Child Mind Institute, that doesn’t necessarily mean the internet caused these psychological problems. What’s more likely, she said, is that these underlying issues manifest themselves in problematic technology use.
“Day to day in my practice, I see a lot of kids who have trouble tolerating separation from social media, but it’s not their primary problem,” said Howard. "Usually their primary problem is anxiety, depression or bullying.”
She brought up the example of parents who came to her, incensed that their teen daughter couldn’t spend 20 minutes without her phone. It turned out that a group of girls had been bullying the daughter and posting mean things about her online, which is why she was checking every few minutes to keep track of what they said.
Even though these three different experts suggest different tactics for re-gaining control over technology use in your families, there seems to be one common thread running through it all: Listen to your kids. Draw them into consensus that there’s more to life than what they can see on the screen, and get their buy-in for limits for themselves and the whole family.
Letting your kids help set the tone for what constitutes the “correct” way to use tech in the home is a way to cross the generational divide about use, and it’s also a sobering opportunity to hear how they feel when you ignore them in favor of work emails and late-night Twitter scrolling. It’s easier said than done, but it sure beats the alternative: daily battles between parent and child, or worse -- silence on the issue.