In our modern day, it can be challenging to know what is best for our children with regard to technology and devices, especially since every child and family system is unique. Despite the differences, there is something the majority of families have in common and are wondering: How much screen time is healthy? And beyond that, what kind of screen time?
In this article, we are going to go beyond these questions into the heart of the concern so that you can walk away feeling empowered and knowledgable.
Nothing could have prepared us for this reality we have found ourselves in. It is natural for us to have questions and to feel confused because we have never lived through this before. We all want our children to have healthy relationships with technology, but we often don’t know where to begin. It’s important that we understand and accept that this is a whole new world and it is okay not to have all of the answers. It is also okay to go against the mainstream belief that technology is bad.
The truth is, what we are talking about is: Connection.
“The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world.” ― Johann Hari, author & journalist.
In general, my advise is, don’t believe the hype ― at least not to a degree where you become anxious and stressed about how many hours your toddler watched their favorite show. This atmosphere won’t help you or your child. Instead, get curious and creative. We can attune to what our children are enjoying and use this information ― and technology ― as an avenue to bond.
Like anything else technology used in excess could become harmful, but no more than sugar or exercise. Less balanced ways to utilize devices might include distraction, checking out or feeding negative self image beliefs and patterns. That being said, devices can also be used to learn about our passions, connect with our community and to offer or find support.
So what if devices aren’t bad? In fact, what if they could actually be good?
Jordan Shapiro, PhD, an assistant professor at Temple University and a leader in child development and technology believes that the focus should be on developing healthy behaviors with devices, instead of the time limits and digital detoxes.
“We have all these parenting experts and doctors and psychologists, and they are leaders in their fields, but most of them didn’t grow up in a connected world. They didn’t raise kids in a connected world, and they’re just trying to use the same guidance and advice they always have without considering the new context.” ― Jordan Shapiro
He adds that what parents need is “an attitude adjustment and a digital parenting tool kit.”
This mainstream theme circling our society which has parents, schools, doctors, and experts buying into the idea that kids with devices only lead to trouble. But there’s something deeper going on and the device is not solely to blame ― if to blame at all. This common view focuses on the negative and doesn’t take into account how invaluable this tool has been for millions of people. When we work with technology with intention, it can improve our relationships.
Some people believe that children are acting out more in an attempt to grab a parent’s attention, but what I, and many others observe is actually the desire to connect. This example highlights that the issue is not the device itself, but it’s more a matter of connection. Children call us into the present moment and we have the opportunity to meet them here ― and technology can be part of this moment. In fact, many experts believe that it is essential to practice.
Not only is it our role to remain open, but also to understand that we are living in a brand new era, full of opportunity and growth. We can choose to embrace it and connect more deeply, or we can see it as a threat. Being plugged in and connected is our new norm and despite our concerns, it isn’t going anywhere. We can either fight with it, or we can engage with it.
According to the interviews and data from the National Institute of Health (NIH) study, “kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens get lower scores on thinking and language tests.” Dr. Christakis was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent guidelines for screen time and recommends parents, “avoid digital media use, except video chatting, in children younger than 18 to 24 months.”
Conversely, many researchers and experts argue that we do not have enough data yet. Some studies even show that devices can improve early literacy skills and academic engagement in students with autism. Clare Smith, a PhD student at the University of Surrey states, “First, there is no evidence of a detrimental effect on child development from using iPads. The articles that looked at the different learning effects gained from story based apps compared to books do not recommend that iPads are not used, but rather that parents are aware of the different presentations of the story and that they guide the reader accordingly. They are balanced and highlight the potential gains for literacy development to be made from using a range of media. Second, there is no evidence of use of iPads as a ‘shut up toy’, particularly in the under 3s. The observations I made during my research indicate, if anything, that for this age group the use of tablets and smartphones tends to be a collaborative activity with parents”.
Professor Essi Viding, Director of the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at UCL, adds, “I do not think there is convincing evidence that iPad use would limit social or motor development for example. One might even argue that some aspects of iPad use can prepare for social and motor demands of the current world. What the current data do suggest is that having excessive screen time (excessive likely to vary from one individual to next), especially close to bed time, can disrupt sleep patterns because of the impact of the blue light from the screens on melatonin production and consequently cicardian rhythm. We have good longitudinal data from humans, as well as animal data, emphasising the importance of adequate sleep on learning and memory. However, I do not think we have anything resembling specific guidelines on this topic (though people can apply common sense) and this is not a problem that is specific to iPads.”
Jordan Shapiro notes that, “What I’m calling for is this: How do we adjust to new technology more intentionally? How do we stay mindful of our values as we do it? How do we preserve the things we care about most—whether that’s health or fulfillment or morals or ethics—for our children in a world with technologies very different than the ones we grew up with? We need to teach our kids how to interact with these new technologies, so that by the time they get into classrooms and offices and other technological environments, they know how to live with them in a healthy, fulfilled, happy way.”
Since we live in a busy, modern world where the list of to do’s is constant, handing a child an iPad might allow us the opportunity to shop at the grocery story. But once they start whining for devices, it becomes inconvenient and we instantly feel guilt and shame for creating what appears to be addiction. Then all of a sudden your toddler is a teenager as you play out a grim future in your mind. But here’s the truth, the more we resist this modern way of connection, the more enticing it will be for your child. The more we use it for our convenience, the more trouble it will be come. The more we believe it is bad and wrong, the more we will see it this way. Alternatively, the more we engage with technology and our children authentically, the more relaxed, intentional and fun our connections will become.
“The paradox is that when resistance is fully accepted, the resistance disappears.” — Adyashanti
What if it was as easy as a shift in perspective and present engagement? What if instead this tool is the beginning of a new kind of tool for connection? What if it could actually enhance your relationship?
Children have a powerful ability to focus, so understand that whether they are playing a game outside when it’s dinner time, or playing a game on an iPad, you might experience them having difficulty transitioning. When children ask or whine for devices, it is in part because they see the world around them plugged in and, like many of us, want to be plugged into this circuit we share. This behaviors also suggests that what they are really asking for is connection. If we are stressed out and exhausted, allowing your child to engage with technology might be the most beneficial, appropriate and supportive choice. A calm, peaceful and present parent is more effective for your child’s development.
Jordan Shapiro states, “It’s important to note that there’s no normal way of interacting. How we interact with one another can’t be separated from our cultural context and our environment. Intimacy and social skills have always, at all times, been mediated through a specific tool set. The current tool set happens to be modern technology, and our goal needs to be to teach kids how to interact through their given tool set. Every generation faces this question of how to preserve what we care about in relationships while we adapt to new tools. That adaptation just feels easier and more normal to kids than it does to us because it’s their default. So many parents are concerned that their kids will lack social skills because they spend a lot of their social time online, but what we miss is that this generation is really empathetic, and we partially owe that empathy to how globally interconnected they are.”
Moving Forward: Steps Toward Feeling Empowered
- Ground the heart of the conflict. We are experiencing all the firsts with regard to technology and our kids. Simply by bringing awareness to this truth will help to set the foundation for a successful shift in your perspective.
- Acknowledge where we are now. This is the most expansive and exciting time in our history of sharing, learning and connecting. Technology has the ability to be a tool used to empower the expression of life and humanity along with breaking down more barriers than any other tool on the earth. The truth is we have a vehicle and we don’t know how to drive it…yet. We are all still learning as the world changes. What is terrifying is the our kids can operates the interface better than we can. This can feel uncomfortable. But it can also feel empowering if we can learn to let go of outdated beliefs and embrace technology and the now. The Dalai Lama reminds us that, “Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”
- Pattern yourself after truth. Since kids are authenticity detectors, we have to start by getting curious and getting engaged. We can empower young people by giving them the tools, wisdom and resources—and by learning together. Become present and practice engaging with them and what they are interested in. “I’m your parent and I’m greater than you doesn’t work. What I establish with my children is a partnership” — Jada Pinkett Smith
Once we realize the our children are budding human begins having a unique experience that is completely different than our, then we can then get curious and creative rather than falling back onto the outdated parenting paradigm of manipulation and control. And as we can see, it isn’t working.
“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status. Our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way, we may not see this future, but they will. Our job is to help them make something of it.” — Sir Ken Robinson
Practical Options For Parents Of Young Ones
When your toddler is tugging on your clothing and begging for the iPad, realize that they have an unmet need and looking to soothe this and to connect. Sometimes, something tangible like a phone or iPad is the most helpful tool, or perhaps it is a book. As the parent, you have the opportunity to get curious about the heart of the moment and find solutions together.
- Give your child jobs to engage them. Young children enjoy being included and learning new skills, in and outside of the home. Focus on what you can say yes to. You can also learn about a variety of skills by watching educational and interactive videos together.
- Utilize technology in nature. Who says the two need cannot live together, or even enhance each other? Check out apps like Every Trail, Star Walk and iBird where you can actively learn about nature.
- Be intentional and involved. Maybe your young ones love a particular show? Or hobby? Or insect? Join them in watching a show or video about their interest and use it as an opportunity to cuddle, breathe and explore more about what they love. For example, try Elmo Calls with your little one to learn more about healthy habits, self-confidence and letters. You can also try: The Boynton Collection, Sago Mini Ocean Swimmer and Toddler Flashcards. I personally appreciate I Am Love: Kid’s Yoga Journey and how it incorporates the body and breathing. Each child is different so attune to your child’s age and interests.
- As they grow, include new aspects of technology. Jordan Shapiro encourages parents to let their children be involved on social media (closed networks like with extended family or with a sports group) around the age of 6 years old to learn and practice these social skills and “to model what it looks like to interact in a safe social media space.” He argues that if we wait until adolescent years when their brain is more likely to ignore our wishes and rebel, so it becomes the perfect storm. If they have already have practice, then by the time they are older they will have a sense of what is okay and what isn’t okay. I believe that this generation is quite sensitive and aware and since we cannot hide the shadows of our world we need to learn to talk about them with our children. This can help channel their energy into awareness, compassion and service. This will only enhance their social skills.
Technology is here to stay and feeling guilty, confused or ashamed will not get us very far. You have the opportunity to be a trailblazer for yourself, your family, your community and even the world. You have the ability to get curious and creative about what your child is interested in and engage with them. Evolve through the idea that we cannot have a world with nature, social skills and technology into an understanding that we are living amidst all of this. And remember, you are doing better than you think you are.
“After all, how can we hope to raise our children to be freethinkers and free-spirited if we aren’t these things ourselves? How can we raise independent, autonomous children if we ourselves aren’t independent and autonomous? How can we raise another human being, another spirit, if our own being has been largely dismissed, our spirit systematically squelched?” — Dr. Shefali, world renowned author, clinical psychologist and speaker.
Kirsten Cobabe, MSW is a Parent and Relationship Coach. She offers support to teenagers, parents and individuals across the globe with regard to enhancing their relationships with themselves and also one other. Learn more about Kirsten at KirstenCobabe.com or on Instagram @KirstenCobab