The digital world in which your children live is moving at light speed. For parents, it’s a challenge to simply understand the devices your child uses, let alone the nonstop torrent of data, apps and digital content they experience. Ensuring your child thrives and learns while remaining safe is much harder for parents today than previous generations.
Parents today must ask difficult questions, and the answers aren’t always clear. How much is too much screen time? Which mobile apps are age-appropriate? Which mobile apps are harmful or deceptive? How much personal information is my child sharing online? Am I as a parent sharing too much about my child on social media?
A few decades ago, it was much easier for parents to monitor what their children were exposed to through media and technology, says Joseph Grizzaffi, MD, a Board Certified general and child/adolescent psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry with LSU Health Sciences Center.
“Parents had a better ability to shield children, since most of what we were exposed to was on the TV or the radio,” Dr. Grizzaffi says.
Working with children and adolescent patients today, Dr. Grizzaffi frequently sees the negative effects that digital technology and media can have.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, excessive media use can lead to attention problems, difficulties in school, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. Additionally, anxiety disorders, age inappropriate behavior, and risk-taking behavior can all be worsened by exposure to adult-oriented material and themes.
Smart phones, tablets, computers, and social media expose children to the world at much younger ages, and they’re often not yet equipped to cope with it.
Parents have no choice but to learn and stay informed about the technology and the content, Dr. Grizzaffi says.
“In the 1970s, children began watching television at about age four,” says Dimitri Christakis, MD, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. By contrast, children today are exposed to digital entertainment starting at four months, Dr. Christakis told a gathering of caregivers and parents at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital earlier this year.
Children today are digital natives, while parents are digital immigrants who learned as adults. “It’s a struggle to keep up with our children’s use of technology,” he said.
Digital technology and content can profoundly affect children from infancy through adulthood. Technology and media affect their cognitive development, language and behavior.
To help parents find their way through this new digital world, we have put together a series of helpful tools, guides and information aimed at giving parents the background they need to raise digitally competent and responsible kids.
Your kids are watching you more closely than you might realize.
Your teenage child may insist they want to be nothing like you when they grow up, but they probably will.
“Take every opportunity you can to convey the right way to act,” Dr. Christakis says. That means having clear rules for yourself, including adhering to clear guidelines on how much and what type of content is acceptable.
It’s important that you model good behavior when it comes to using social media and technology.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers extensive tips and advice on keeping children safe in their digital lives, including:
If you think your kid is the only person in the house hooked on their digital device, think again.
Research shows devices and technology are equally addictive for adults, and children of parents who obsessively use smart phones are likely to do so themselves.
Have you ever repeatedly checked your device when waiting for a message, perhaps even while someone is talking to you in person? Or perhaps you’ve checked to see how many “likes” your post received on social media? Having that smart phone “can be like walking around with crack cocaine in our pocket; it’s incredibly addictive,” Dr. Christakis says.This is important because the most important way parents can teach their children how to use technology in healthy ways is to model healthy behavior.
There are benefits and advantages for children who are savvy at learning and adopting new technologies and the latest devices.
More important than gadgets themselves is how your child reacts to the content. Some video games can encourage risky or mature behaviors in pre-teens and adolescents.
Younger children are vulnerable to rapid-paced programming and games, which can over stimulate their young minds. Studies have proven children perform poorly in academic skills after they’ve watched hyper kinetic programs that jump quickly from scene to scene, says Dr. Christakis.
Parents should require their children to watch only age-appropriate programs, and to discourage young children from watching fast-paced shows.
Of course, children may find slower-paced shows less exciting, but that presents an opportunity to begin teaching an important life lesson.
“Regardless of whether or not children find something interesting, they are never going to get ahead in life if they can’t apply themselves to tasks that aren’t appealing to them,” he says. “The real challenge in succeeding is not doing the things you find appealing or fun; it’s applying your mind and maintaining focus on things you don’t find fun.”
Our brain is highly sensitive to the intense light given off by digital screens.
Blue light emitted from screens suppresses the production of melatonin, which helps children sleep. Children and teens need 10 hours of sleep each night.
There is now a setting on iPhones called “Night Shift Mode” that changes the color of the screen from blue light to yellow/red light. Still, it’s a good idea to put away smart phones a few hours before bed. Beyond the screens themselves, kids who are using phones for social media, messaging or posting may still be thinking about the activity long after the phone is off, including wondering what kind of reactions their posts are receiving.
Teens often copy risk-taking behaviors
There’s a strong case to be made that parents should carefully and aggressively monitor and control the kinds of programming they allow their teen children to watch.
Teens imitate behavior they are exposed to, particularly ideas from media and friends. This can be both positive and negative. A parent’s job is to mediate the effects of media.
Parents should discuss risk-taking behavior with their teen children, and media provides plenty of opportunities. For example, explore different scenarios in television shows and let your teenager know what you would expect in a similar situation.
We asked four pediatricians to share a few effective tactics and methods they’ve used with their own children or that they’ve seen used successfully by their patients’ parents.
Dr. Christopher Funes
“We gave our children a choice of having an hour of screen time per day during the week or no weekday screen time, but they could get a few more hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They chose none during the week, and it’s made all the difference. They get their homework done and there’s no rushing through it so they can see shows.”
Dr. Thiravat Choojitarom
Primary Care of Denham Springs
“I didn’t let my son have his own smart phone or tablet until he was a bit older, about 11 or 12. I also don’t let them send text messages after 9 p.m.—nothing is that urgent. If I’m watching a movie with my son and something happens, and I can tell he’s confused, I will try to talk it through with him. I want to make sure he doesn’t get the wrong message.”
Dr. Sandra Franz
Pediatric Medical Center
“Some families have kids hand in their devices when they kiss their kids goodnight, or they’ll have the kids put phones on the dining room table for the duration of a ‘play date.’ Driving distracted is dangerous. I recommend that moms put their phones next to the baby’s car seat in the back while driving. In addition to the removed distraction, it could also prevent infants from being left in hot cars.”
Dr. Diane Kirby
Pediatric Academic Clinic
“My stepson is grown and living on his own. But when he was at home, we restricted screen time to less than two hours per day—which is challenging with a boy who loves to watch football. We also were strict about monitoring Internet browsing history and social media posts, to try to prevent inappropriate or predatory activity.”