Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parenting Tools

X is for Xbox, Media, Cell phone, Net and electronic device LIMIT-setting

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

A teenager told me last week that everyone she knew cheated on book reports by lifting stuff off the Net instead reading the books. She claimed that it “takes too long to read a book.” She described how her generation hated wasting time on slow communication. She added, “It’s like why I don’t read emails from my relatives. I pretty much connect by texting—it’s fast and easy. I don’t even listen to voicemails. It takes too long.”

She’s even bored with TV these days. Instead, she simultaneously watches videos, texts, Facebooks and plays her favorite online game, FarmVille. She sheepishly admitted, “It’s addictive and expensive, but it gives me such a thrill when I go online to see how much the seeds I purchased have grown!” The seeds might be fake—or virtual as we say—but hey, it doesn’t stop the thrill of the blossom.

Quick. Easy. Connect. Thrill. Addictive. Expensive. These words sum up a lot of the downside of technology invading children’s lives and hijacking the time that used to be spent outside, reading, creating, reflecting or socializing with direct face to face interaction.

Little releases of dopamine, the neuro-chemical associated with pleasure in the brain, keep us pecking away at our machines for those jolts of good feeling. Unfortunately, these highly rewarding encounters with machines can often occur more reliably and effectively than with a conversation with a loved one. Herein lies (one aspect of) the problem.

The Kaiser foundation found that the average American kid spends 7 and a half hours a day engaged with TV, video games and the Net.  Add cell phones and multi-screening. and the number goes up to 11 hours a day. And the heaviest media users were more likely to be obese, sad, and doing poorly at school. No wonder this phenomenon has been called an assault on “family life as we’ve known it” for thousands of years.

On the other hand, young people in rural communities or developing countries can access information, education and employment over the Net. Children with disabilities and problems can feel less isolated when they join interest groups. Marginalized youth find resources that can make the difference between alienation and knowing that a wider world view suggests that life “gets better”.

New technology has always been associated with both fear and excitement. The telegraph, telephone and television had their detractors. People end up saying, “It’s here to stay, so you might as well learn to deal with it.” What does that mean for parenting and preventing screens from taking over your child’s social and mental lives in the 21st century?

I can sum up my advice in 4 steps for dealing with the new technology and media in your child’s life and your own: T.E.C.H.

Take time to learn it
Exercise control over it—make and follow rules
Consider tracking and filtering it
Harness the best, and zap the rest!

It’s past the time that any parent can get away with “I’m a techie dinosaur” while letting their kids have access to the Net and cell phones, which are increasingly “little computers” and buying machines.

In our chapter on technology in Getting to Calm, we advise parents to give their tweens “learner’s permits” before they are allowed to drive alone on the roads of the Internet and social networking sites. It’s akin to the wild, wild West of yore. Would you want your kid set loose on the range without guidance, protection and assistance? There is a learning curve for responsible and competent usage of these powerful and potentially risky vehicles for connecting, entertaining and acquiring stuff of all kinds. And there are marketers stalking and recording your kids’ travel patterns on the Net like vultures and bounty hunters…only they are better at it.

All it takes is one incident of poor judgment to upend your child’s whole life. An impulsive posting on a classmate’s FaceBook page and your child could be accused of sexual harassment (e.g. “Hey, nice boobs”) or bullying (“Your picture is soooooo ugly”). It seems like common sense that tweens need an adult’s supervision for a while. Some of the teens with thrill-seeking personalities need it for a long time.

How is parental Internet monitoring like Sex Ed? Parents say they do it but they don’t. Kids commonly encounter unwanted porn, unhealthy attitudes about sexuality, and images of violence. The only solution is filters, guidance, rules and a system for tracking compliance. For older teens, parents can use their judgment, hopefully based on their teens' track record for responsibility.

Paradoxically, there is information all over the Net about its dangers and superb guidelines for parents. Yes, there is a documented relationship between children playing violent video games and their aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Addiction is a real possibility. And yes, the gendered patterns are disturbing too, with more boys liking violent games and girls liking sites about clothes, beauty products, dieting and celebrity gossip.

But for every paragraph about the bad parts of getting wired, I can write another about the benefits. Research has shown that certain (safe) video gaming can result in improved spatial cognition, acuity, reaction time, attention and focus. Research has documented how low income children given laptops for use at home have increased their standardized test scores and grade point averages.

Technology is a rough and ready realm of risk and opportunity. The risk part means that parents need to teach and model self-restraint and discernment. Remember that line from Socrates (or was it the temple of Apollo at Delphi?)—“everything in moderation”? Put another way—too much of a good thing is a bad thing. The Net helps us stay in touch with friends and relatives, but it also removes us from family members in the next (or same!) room. The percentage of people that report that the Internet has diminished time that they spend with their families has tripled in the last four years.

Kids need time to play outside, experience solitude without electronics, reflect, do their non-Net homework, read, hang out with their friends face to face, make and enjoy dinners with their families, and participate in sports, music, arts, and service. Goodness, if parents prioritize these nutritious pursuits for their children, who has the time to indulge in excessive cyber-stuff?

The answer is in that question right there. Just like engineering a good nutrition plan, parents need to use the TECH protocol to make sure that their children “harness the best, and zap the rest”. Nourish them with some great veges, fruits and protein (electronically available research, creative activity, intellectual stimulation). Enjoy some of those good carbos and fats (healthful social media). Limit the sugar (gaming and video downloads), and stay away from drugs and alcohol (porn, violent first shooter games, exploitive sites). Balance your meals. Every time you turn on the machine, you are consuming—something.

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