The next time you're in a waiting room, look up from your phone at the people around you. Chances are that 90 percent will be like you and me, looking at some type of electronic device. Even the very little child may be holding a tablet or a parent’s cell phone. When I take the time to look up, I feel a sense of wonder and sadness. Wonder that we are fortunate enough to live in this digital age of information and that we never need to sit idle or feel bored. Sad that the opportunity to engage with other people is vastly diminished. This may cause us to miss out on learning something from that engagement or meeting someone who might play a significant role in our lives. We might even miss reconnecting with someone we haven't seen in years because they pass by while we're looking down.
The implications for our children are far more concerning. We not only model a preoccupation with staring at screens, but we encourage it, too. We pacify children while at a restaurant or sitting in a public area with an electronic gadget. Even while in their company, we are often consumed by having to respond to a text within seconds or taking a phone call. How then can we expect them to resist the attraction of electronic devices? And how can we set limits for them when it is so hard for us to do the same? It is almost impossible to help our children learn how to self-monitor and set limits without being committed to the idea ourselves.
If our consumption and preoccupation was with a substance or behaviour such as gambling, our friends and family members would be encouraging us to get help, but because we are all similarly addicted, our excessive use of electronics has become a societal norm.
Without setting these limits for ourselves and our children, we risk stunting their growth in areas that don't require cognitive or intellectual performance. For example, if very young children learn to prefer spending time sitting, watching television, playing a video game on the iPad or computer, they might not have sufficient opportunity to develop important gross motor skills learned through play. Even social skills may be underdeveloped as kids become more proficient at engaging with computers instead of human beings.
Even when we are more conscious of the effects of screen time on ourselves and our children, it is difficult to break this habit. But keep working at it. Monitor the amount of time your family is spending in front of screens – watching television, using the computer, hypnotized by video games or playing on phones or iPads. Then come up with a game plan so that you can all become more conscious of balancing your time wisely. Try these tips:
Kids this age are as fluent and comfortable with digital language as they are with their mother tongue. Their fingers are adept at navigating the keys and it’s as if they are programmed to understand their devices as well as the people who created them. As common as it is for parents to offer their cell phones or tablets to their preschoolers and as wonderful as it is that they have the opportunity to expand their knowledge, try to balance this with good old-fashioned activities such as puzzles and creative exercises.
From smart boards in every classroom to homework sent via email and blog and templated report cards, schools have embraced technology. It’s important to help school-aged children appreciate life beyond technology and make sure that homework is complete before students engage in leisurely computer activities. Although it’s often difficult to monitor when your child is actually using his computer for homework versus watching favourite YouTube videos, keeping screens in common areas of your home can help.
It can be increasingly difficult to keep up with teens’ understanding and use of technology. Continue to set clear limits and ensure that technology is not adversely affecting the way they interact with the family. If activity on the computer (Facebook, Youtube or even binge-watching television) is affecting their ability to get homework done, for example, then you need to step in. Also, encourage your teens to put their phones away in the classroom, unless needed, so that they can concentrate on what is going on in front of, instead of under, their noses.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July/August 2015.