While there’s no doubt that technology improves our quality of life in many ways, most of us are also aware of the darker side of our relationship with modern technology.
The potential downside of technology’s presence in our lives aren’t theoretical or paranoid; there is a growing body of scientific research pointing to some harmful effects technology can have on our mental and physical health. This is especially true for children, and many parents may be struggling with how to balance the benefits and risks of how your children interact with technology.
The challenge of parenting around technology is exacerbated by the fact that most adults who are currently of child-rearing age didn’t have to face such constant access to technology and media when they were kids.
You may have grown up knowing that the internet existed, but it probably wasn’t part of your daily routine or your social life, and you didn’t have a handheld device that let you bring your online world everywhere. You weren’t negatively comparing yourself to social media feeds or losing sleep to scroll through your screen.
The research on the effects of technology on children’s developing brains and bodies is troubling. Smartphones are addictive, and their presence can make kids more distracted in school. A study by the NIH revealed that kids who have excessive daily screen time show brain changes related to processing sensory input. Other studies show that smartphones and screens interfere with sleep (which is critical for developing brains) and that the altered reality of social media can lead to depression, anxiety, and even the risk of suicide in teens.
Excessive screen time also gets in the way of outdoor activities and unstructured play, both of which are important for childhood development. Many top technology executives have banned the use of smartphones and other devices for their kids, which speaks to the seriousness of these threats.
There are potential benefits to allowing children access to some technology. There’s an argument to make that more future careers will require digital skills, and children who have an interest in those fields will be poised for success. Social media, for older kids, can be a way to stay connected with friends and family who live far away. And the internet does offer a wealth of information on subjects kids are interested in.
Technology itself provides tools, including timers, parental controls, and screen time scheduling apps that parents can use to regulate and monitor their kids’ online experiences.
The key for parents negotiating technology is a balance. One way to achieve this is to wait as long as possible before giving kids constant access to technology. Hudson Physicians practitioner Dr. Kelly Delahunty, citing recommendations from experts in child psychology and technology use, strongly recommends waiting until 8th grade, or around age 14, to give kids their own smartphone. Before that age, you can provide kids a basic phone without internet access in case they need to contact you while they’re out. You can also use supervised or limited access to laptops and tablets at home. If your kids need to use the internet for research, you can whitelist specific sites and block others to make sure their online time is safe. And you can lead by example, using your own devices less and making more time for quality family activities and outdoor play.
As a parent, you need to be aware of the real risks technology can pose for your family; you also need to make tough decisions about how to mitigate those risks. As much as you can, try to involve your kids in discussions about technology and social media. If you build trust with your kids, they can come to you with questions and concerns they have about their online experiences, and you can work together as a family to set healthy limits.
Being a role model
As an adult, keep in mind how much time you’re spending on your phone. Your kids are watching you and will do what you do. Summer is short here in Wisconsin – spend as much time as possible out with your kids and without your phones!
To your health,
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