The mantra of the well-educated parent in 2015 is to attempt to limit their children’s device use and then feel guilty when it inevitably seeps back into their family’s life.
As a child psychiatrist, I hear well-meaning parents feeling bad about their digital choices for their children, whether it be, for example, providing their 9-year-old boy with a smartphone, or allowing their 11-year-old daughter to join Instagram. The goal is to make thoughtful and informed decisions for your family and not passively float through the digital sea.
The Academy of Pediatrics is inadvertently making parents feel worse by recommending that screen time not exceed two hours per day. The Kaiser Foundation reports that children actually spend on average 8 hours and 40 minutes per day on technology. Parents often feel peer pressure to restrict when they have already made a conscious decision to permit. That said, used properly, digital technology is the most incredible invention of modern times and has limitless potential. Since kids spend more time on technology than sleeping or attending school we need to make sure that their digital journey makes them smarter, happier and kinder.
Here are 5 positive messages to assist in digital parenting:
1. A place to play: Play and exploration form the cornerstone of early identity formation. If only I had a nickel for every parent who bemoaned the “death of play.” Rest assured, young children continue to engage in imaginary play as they always have. However, the real treasure of digital technology is that it offers older children the opportunity for imaginative play. At some point towards the end of elementary school, most children become too self-conscious to build with blocks or dress up in Star Wars costumes. In cyberspace, tweens and teens can create avatars or alternate realities. Minecraft allows children to play with blocks and create complicated structures and worlds; it cultivates innovation, creativity and patience (while most adults quickly lose patience with its idiosyncratic design). Role playing games allow tweens and teens to use their imaginations to write scripts and play out fantasy roles.
2. Apps that are good for the brain: Sesame Workshop did a survey of the iTunes app store and Android’s Google Play. They found that 80 percent of apps under the “education” heading were designed for children and over 70 percent of those were targeted towards preschool and early elementary school-aged children. I believe this is true in part because educational apps designed for 3 to 8 year olds are truly educational. Let me be clear, there is NO evidence to prove that any one app increases your child’s IQ. However, tech savvy early educators agree that the touchscreen and tablet revolution may be as important an educational discovery as the chalkboard. There are myriad of fantastic apps for kids ranging from 3 to 8 that focus on literacy, writing and basic number sense. It seems that educational apps are less well suited for teaching more advanced cognitive skills related to comprehension and interpretation. Once your child is fully literate and into 3rd or 4th grade, it is much harder to find truly educational games. Older children will grow intellectually from using technology as a tool for creativity, presentation and discovery. Older elementary children can create a presentation, produce a movie or take a virtual trip to the International Space Station. Use little kids apps and big kid programs as tools to engage your children and cultivate them intellectually.
3. Does gaming prepare you for life? There is no question that playing certain types of video games in moderation cultivates fine motor and cognitive skills. Video games have been found to improve metacognition (understanding and awareness of one’s thought process), visual memory, attention and concentration, response time performance, and visual-spatial skills. Kids who play video games are better at rotating 3D figures in their heads. They are also more likely to read instructions on their own and use trial and error to problem solve. Gamers will tell you that they learn collaboration, teamwork and online etiquette from their games. All sounds good to me. The challenge with gaming is moderation. Massive multiplayer role-playing games become addictive very easily. Take an interest in your child’s game of choice and collaborate with your child to set reasonable limits from the beginning.
4. Use social media for social change: Social media is the perfect place to teach kindness, resilience and digital citizenship. Last March you could donate time spent off your phone to Unicef whose donors contributed one day of fresh water for each 10 minutes donated. Last summer, many young people took the ice water challenge to raise money for ALS research. They recorded themselves dumping ice water on their heads and sent the videos to theirs friends challenging them and raising money simultaneously.
It is true that the anonymity of the Internet allows easily for cyberbullying, but it also makes it easier to stand up to bullies. Your tween/teen can stand up to the mass mentality of group chats or the mean girl tagging and excluding on Instagram. Social media offers tween and teens a place to make good choices and skin their knees safely as they develop the resilience and confidence needed to navigate their world online and offline. They might not be able to do it alone. Tweens and teens can use their parents to find positive role models and navigate sticky situations. If you are involved in your child’s digital life, you can offer suggestions and advice on how to be kind online. Social media offers kids a place for social change and parents an effective forum to encourage kindness and citizenship.
5. Use social media to present your best self: We all know that your digital footprint starts at birth and that children’s lives are chronicled online. Teenagers who present their “best self” (not their fake, perfect self) rate higher on measures of self-confidence and self-esteem. If your teenager has good social skills and self-esteem then social media can help her to feel more connected and more understood. A teenager’s online life can be become a calling card or portfolio. Teenagers can showcase their music online or write a fashion blog. They can design games and write codes with kids from all over the world. The key is that your online identity must mirror your true identity. Pretending to be something you’re not online only leads to trouble. The challenge is managing envy or becoming overly focused on the number of friends or likes. Encourage your teenagers to use digital technology to showcase and explore their interests and passions.
Bonus benefit for parents:
Sometimes a teenager’s online identity is a window into their soul. If you are concerned about your tween or teenager, you may not need to look further than Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat to recognize that your child is in trouble. Generally the technology is not the cause of the anger or isolation, but it is often the outlet in which it is expressed. Taking an occasional tour of your child’s digital identity may help you to understand your tween/teenager better and take care of them if they are in crisis.
Jodi Gold is the mother of three and the author of Screen-Smart Parenting: How to Find Balance and Benefit in Your Child’s Use of Apps, Social Media and Digital Devices.