Remember early advice to parents on “media literacy,” back in the 90s, urging you to sit with your child through questionable TV shows and commercials so you could help them resist manipulation? Well it’s gotten a lot more complicated.
Media literacy now, as the phrase has evolved, encompasses much more than helping your child resist a seductive ad, or understand that a scary show isn’t “for real.” With smartphones and constant access to a relentless social media feed, kids now need our help with threats as varied as emotional dependency, Snapchat-induced anxiety, online bullying, and a possibly brain-function-altering addiction to screens.
In a Jan. 9, 2018 New York Times Business article, “Prodding Apple on Addiction,” the specter many parents dread to name is raised bluntly: the harmful effects that iPhone use and social media may be imposing on a generation of kids. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/technology/apple-tech-children According to the Times, “two of the biggest investors on Wall Street have asked Apple to study the health effects of its products and to make it easier for parents to limit their children’s use of iPhones and iPads.” There is growing concern that the time spent in front of screens crowds out other, vital contributors to a child’s development, like reading, sports, the arts, and even face to face conversation, with its range of subtle cues, and shared in-person experiences that build communal feeling.
Common Sense Media, a company with extensive resources devoted to research on technology use, has “found that more than half of teenagers spent upward of four hours a day looking at screens and that for a quarter [of teens,] the figure was more than eight hours.” A 2016 survey conducted by CSM found half of the teens questioned “said they felt addicted to their mobile devices.” According to the Times article, the pressure is on – and felt by – not only Apple, but also Facebook and Twitter, to take a good hard look at how their business models may have fast-tracked a vast social experiment on a generation of kids.
Tony Fadell, formerly of Apple and a co-creator of the iPhone, admits the company’s products “can be incredibly addictive,” and that people now are “simply spending too much time looking at their phones,” a result that’s been “10 years in the making.” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, concedes his company has “work to do,” including “making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”
That’s heartening. But what can individual parents do? On their own? Now?
1) SET LIMITS
A key to countering technology addiction, say pediatricians, psychologists, educators and CSM, is simple: set limits. Decide on the amount of time you want to allow your child in front of screens, discuss it, then stick to it. And while you’re at it, take a good hard look at yourself. Decide how often you want your child to see YOU in front of a screen. Then stick to it.
While Apple is busy figuring out how to expand technologies for parents to control children’s phone use, you don’t have to wait. Until those technologies are developed, you can forge ahead, the low-tech way, by simply getting comfortable with saying “no.”
2) SPEND TIME WITH YOUR CHILD, NOT WITH A SCREEN
Find ways to spend more time with your child, either talking, or doing activities, BUT – and this is key – NOT WITH a distracting screen, either in your hand, your child’s hand, or in the room. Play a game, make a meal, visit a museum, build something, go on a hike or bike ride, or just talk. Try to find time every day, even briefly, to include these moments.
3) COMMUNICATE YOUR VALUES
If you think endless engagement with social media, or too much time spent staring at screens is unproductive, say so. Tell your child there is plenty to do without a screen, and that he needs to learn to have both in his life and find a balance. Let her know that your family highly values things that happen best without the distraction of a screen – direct communication, shared projects, understanding of each other’s feelings, building deep and enduring friendships.
4) TEACH SELF-DISCIPLINE EARLY
Rationing screen time will be hardest for a teen with a huge friend list and an already well-established addiction to an Instagram feed or endless rounds of group texts. It’s easier if you’ve laid the groundwork well ahead of time by saying early on that you expect your child to limit screen time. Start telling your children about taking responsibility for how they spend their time, when they’re little. Gradually the dialogue may grow more complex, as you continue discussion and delve into the philosophical why’s, but do introduce the concept early. If you can keep this conversation going, you may both learn from it.
5) MODEL, MODEL, MODEL
You’re on display. Don’t ever think your child isn’t watching what you do, from infancy on. Make this very human, real-time, flesh-and-blood display count. Don’t waste all of it staring at a screen of your own, unable to meet the eye of your watching – and adoring – child.
Common Sense Media’s website has good, practical advice and tips for parents on helping kids avoid technology addiction. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/technology-addiction/how-can-i-help-my-kids-develop-good-media-habits