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Time to Unplug

The infiltration of technology into our daily lives offers both opportunities and challenges for today’s parents. We raise children who have access to vast amounts of information and interface with others around the world without giving it a second thought. Questions can be answered in an instant, commercials can be bypassed so we don’t have to delay the gratification of knowing how shows end, and long gone are the days of waiting for snail mail to receive information from those we love. We have the ability to share our lives in live time and to create carefully calculated virtual identities. These advances are amazing, and yet there are moments when the disadvantages seem glaring. For example, I was recently out to dinner with my family. A father and his daughter walked into the restaurant and were seated adjacent to us. As soon as the daughter sat down she put on headphones and failed to look up from her tablet the entire time. Meanwhile the father was interacting with his phone. I don’t think the two said one word to each other during the entire meal. Many might judge me for paying so much attention to a situation that had nothing to do with me. However, I left feeling very sad. Sad, because our reliance on technology often gets in the way of fostering real interpersonal relationships. As compelling as screens are, whether we’re referencing phones, tablets, video games, or televisions there is research to suggest moderation is important.

Young children learn most effectively through interaction with other human beings. Too often parents use screen time as a babysitter rather than co-viewing media with their little ones. Researchers are concerned that children in this “App Generation” will fail to learn self-regulation skills if parents distract them with technology. Another worry is the impact parental technology use may have on relationships with their children. In a 2014 study, researcher Jenny Radesky found that when parents were “highly absorbed” in their phones or tablets they “often responded harshly to children’s behavior.” We don’t like being interrupted, and involvement with our devices often takes precedent over everything else.

Another concern is that screen media can be habit forming. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging screen time for children under the age of 2 and less than 2 hours of screen time for older children. Children who are exposed to screen time when they’re younger have an even harder time turning off devices when they get older. Parents often use electronics as a bargaining tool to encourage or reward positive behavior. However, using this as a reward may only set kids up for failure, because as they get older and more savvy children may begin refusing to do what parents want if not given screen time. Since screen time can be addictive children who are predisposed to addictions may become defiant and even physically aggressive when denied playing time on their electronics. Researcher Nicholas Kardaras likens screen time to heroin for some children.

Another challenge for parents is that we don’t know what children may be exposed to when we’re not looking. The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” was not necessarily marketed for middle school children, yet many of them stumbled upon it through You Tube. This graphic depiction of a young girl’s suicide is certainly not something I’d want my children viewing with their friends, but it circulated widely among young teens and pre-teens. Media use has the potential to expose our children to information for which they’re not ready or cannot process in a healthy way without adult guidance.

A final concern about media use, social media in particular, is sensitive kids may be affected negatively due to comparing themselves with others. We often paint perfect lives, but that’s not reality. I might post a picture of lunch with a friend but no one knows about that spilled cup of coffee, stubbed toe, or frantic pace at which I ran to get there. What we post are simply moments. And then we get into tallying “likes” on Instagram or Musical.ly. These are ways in which we, and our children, can drive ourselves crazy. So as you consider parameters around media use in your home, both yours and your children’s, be mindful about the powerful impact it can have on relationships, self-regulation, and overall well-being.

Dr. Carmen Anderson is a School Counselor at St. Mary’s School, a private International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, located in south Orange County, dedicated to providing the best education possible for Preschool, Elementary and Middle School students. Carmen Anderson earned her B.S. degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University and later her M.A./Psy.D in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. For more information about St. Mary’s School, visit www.smaa.org.

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