Where Do We Draw the Line For Tech Use Among Kids?

Tech use among kids: Good, or bad? Having a black-and-white answer might make it easier to monitor use and create guidelines around that use. But unfortunately, the real answer is more in the gray area.
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Tech use among kids: Good, or bad?

Having a black-and-white answer might make it easier to monitor use and create guidelines around that use. But unfortunately, the real answer is more in the gray area, says pediatrician and author Laura Jana, M.D.

Research has shown that screen time for kids can take away from sleep, and might even have an effect on face-to-face interactions that are critical for early brain development, Jana told us. But at the same time, new technology can aid in education in a way that's never been seen before.

We talked to Jana at Stream Health, the "(un)conference" put on by advertising holding company WPP (disclosure: AOL, the parent company of HuffPost, is a partner of Stream and WPP), about the biggest challenges in setting limits for kids' digital activity, why we should be aware of messages kids may be receiving online, and simple steps parents can take to make sure their children aren't being overloaded on tech.

On why we need to fully understand how kids use technology...

One of the best lines I've heard is from the man who runs the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard, Michael Rich. He's using technology to study children's technology use -- and he's doing a 360 [degree] view of what a child is actually doing when they say they're using one device. Yes, they're using a cell phone, but what he's looking at is how many different devices they're also on. Because the thing is, [there could be a difference between] what you say you're doing and what you're actually doing, especially when it's subconscious and there's concern about passive media use. If we really want to know the impact of screen time, we have to start with what they are actually doing.

On why we need to figure out a responsible way to use technology, and not just block it out entirely...

Rich has another expression. If you're this purist worried about violence and all the potential ill effects of media and technology, he said we have to stop thinking of technology as bad. We've got to get rid of that mindset, but rather, think of it like the air we breathe and the water we drink. He says, yes, it can get contaminated and yes, we need to do what we can to keep everybody from getting exposed to contaminated air and water. But the idea that we'll make it go away, or blanket statements about "all" or "none" when it comes to technology use... there's this gray area we're missing. We need to be aware of the potential harms or unintended consequences of technology use, but also recognize it's not going anywhere. And if we don't get kids set up to use it, responsibly use it, it's like sending kids off to college having never made a food decision in their life. We need to prepare them, and we need to let them fail a little bit.

On the difficulties of monitoring kids' digital/tech use...

Think of the biggest users of the Internet. You've got child pornography, fake people, all the security issues. Now think about the fact that we have kids going to a place where all this exists. You don't let 6-year-olds play in the middle of the street, but we let them play on the Internet. Then you think about marketing strategies. Marketing to children has always been a concern to pediatricians, and when you make it easier, faster and instant for kids to have access and to do dumb things -- it's an open playground. [Another Michael Rich idea is that] you've got digital natives being raised by digital immigrants. It's like native English speakers being taught by parents who know English as a second language, at best, on the subtleties and intricacies if Web use. The ones supposed to be setting the limits are the ones who aren't native.

On kids being exposed to marketing when they're online...
If you are a parent, think about this: somebody comes up to your child and does the same kind of stuff that's happening online: "I would like to know your birthdate, and I would like to know where you live, and what you bought, and the credit card number you used." Parents would never let that happen if someone did that at the park! But parents don't think about people watching their children in the real world as they do in the virtual world. We walk our kids across the street and don't let them go to the park by themselves. We're scared -- sometimes overly scared! -- but we let them run around in this virtual playground, with companies who are saying, "Let's market to them, let's make them buy stuff."

And how those same marketing tactics can be used for good...
That being said, if you could hijack the marketing abilities of companies that successfully market big brands, why cant we do that with healthy messages? Sometimes they have the same agenda. Say a company wants to get out message about safe sleep, and so do I. If you're the American Academy of Pediatrics and someone asks me [if they should trust this company's message], and I'm the doctor, I say, "I don't trust it if it just comes from the company." [The company] may have the most Ph.D.s, but there's that tainted view, or perception. But if the AAP and the company have the same message they want to get out, more power to them [in pulling the different disciplines together] because the company knows how to market the message.

On actionable steps parents can take to ensure their kids aren't being overloaded on tech...
Turning off the TV is a good one. We don't let children -- and I would say, teenagers, too -- be bored. Innovation happens because someone was bored. Your [table and phone] sucks you in and fills the void that used to give enough boredom that someone would go play with friends, ride a bike or read a book. Along with that, recognize background television is really looking concerning.

And then I have to say it, but read books. People stop reading aloud to their kids when they start reading themselves, around 5 to 6 years old. But keep reading to them through the elementary school years.

Also, realize that face-to-face interaction and screen interaction [aren't the same]. Especially when those [face-to-face[ interactions are developing the brain. Having kids spend time with screens is not the same, even if it's a reading program [on a device].

[Things like reading and face-to-face interaction] may not be shiny, and we get distracted by shiny objects. But don't discount what we know.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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