A few months ago, I was leading my therapy group for struggling college students; young people who feel socially isolated and alone. Some have dropped out of school, some white knuckled their way through only to graduate and half-heartedly look for work while living with their over-accommodating parents.
While struggling to help them relate to each other, one young man became enraged at me.
"You don't understand! You just don't get it! This 'emotional education' thing that you keep talking about, I never learned to do that. My computer was my babysitter, my friend, my playmate - I don't know how to relate. I never learned how."
It was a moment of heartbreaking clarity. Technology without supervision is not healthy for any young person. When staring into a glowing screen replaces meaningful communication in a child's life, he or she will suffer mightily with intimacy in the future.
Welcome to "Generation Screen"
Can you believe that there was a time when people didn't spend hours of their day staring into glowing screens? Phones never left the house, television put itself to sleep at night, and computers were just fancy typewriters. Technology didn't come with you to the playground, school or on a family vacation.
Sure, this talk makes me sound like a geezer, but everywhere you look, children are staring into cell phones screens, computer screens, tablets, ipads, etc. Probably by the time you finish reading this article, someone will have invented a new glowing screen for children to stare into.
The real question is this: has technology improved our kids attunement and empathy with others or is it adding to their self-absorption and isolation?
Tuned-in and Out of Touch
Never before in history have kids had instant access to so much information. With endless data at their fingertips, kids can breeze through entire libraries with their thumbs, and even view earth from space. A tap or a click can deliver facts and statistics that would have taken hours to find in a library or books.
While technology has expanded our knowledge of the world, advanced education and provided for medical breakthroughs, it is quickly becoming a number one source of conflict between parents and their children at home.
Technology and Temperament
Some kids don't fuss over technology. These kids tend to lead full lives filled with hobbies and numerous activities such as school clubs, social events, sports teams, band or music practice. To them, technology is just another pastime.
For other kids, technology devours their lives. They can't put down or turn it off. These kids tend to be more isolated and anxious, have poor people skills, difficulty maintaining friendships or an unstable sense of self. For them, technology is just another way to avoid a frustrating world; a world that they have difficulty handling. By placing a glowing screen in front of their face, they can shut out contact and communication. Sadly, the more connected they feel to technology, the less connected they feel to the people around them.
For example, the best summer camps don't allow any technology. That's because they know that the more connected kids are to technology, the less connected they will be to each other.
If technology becomes your kid's primary activity, if your kid spends hours a day gaming or surfing the net instead of hanging out with friends or participating in school activities, be warned: you may have a budding tech addict in your home.
Many kids who visit my office spend unlimited hours each day tied to some form of technology, such as a cell phone, a tablet, or portable gaming device. They can't travel without it or put it down without a fight. In this way, technology starts to look a lot like addiction.
Like any addiction, as dependency increases, personal functioning decreases. Kids become more impulsive, moody, and less empathic. As their hunger for more tech time grows, clashes with parents increase.
Tech addicted kids are more likely to suffer:
• Social isolation
• Poor social skills
• Unstable moods
• Impulse problems
• Sleep disorders
• Low self-esteem
The biggest problem with technology is simple: it doesn't turn itself off. Setting limits on unhealthy behaviors is a crucial part of good parenting. Taking the role of "guardian of technology" may make you unpopular with your kid, but it is key to preventing tech addiction tendencies.
Here are some basic recommendations for parents who have a child obsessed with technology. Of course, every kid is different; what works for one child, may be a disaster for another. Consider this list a jumping off point for discussion. But be warned, the more dependent your kid becomes on technology, the more difficult it will be to wean him or her off it.
1. Tech Blackouts
Set aside specific times at home when no one (parents included) uses technology. Cell phones, computers, ipads...everything is off. If you want your kid to be less tech addicted, you must lead the way. Tech-free time can be spent reading, talking, playing games, cooking, making art...anything creative or social will do.
2. Tech Hours
Kids resist structure -- but fall apart without it. Technology needs limits. For instance, I often recommend that families establish tech hours; time for homework, gaming or surfing the Internet. Scheduling tech time will help to limit battles by setting clear guidelines. For instance, when it comes to gaming, many parents may allow thirty minutes a day during the school week and two hours a day on the weekends.
3. Tech Spaces
When possible, keep all technology in a common space like the living room -- not in a child's bedroom. Establish communal places for tech time; try to avoid allowing your kid to disappear for hours behind a closed door.
4. Tech Limits
There are plenty of on-line services that can filter out inappropriate or violent material. These services can also limit Internet access by scheduling times that Internet is available and times when it is not. One example of such a service is Net Nanny.
Stop Tech Addiction Before it Starts
The bottom line: parents must control technology or risk technology controlling their kids. Even starting a dialogue with your kid about the effects of over-dependence on technology is a step in the right direction. Find the right balance for technology use in your home and eliminate tech addiction in your kid's future.