Why is there so much concern about children being on screens such as cell phones, tablets, computers and TV? Recently I was fortunate enough to log in to Susan Stiffelman’s four-day summit, “Parenting in the Digital Age”. I want to pass on some of the things I learned from the many experts who gave their opinions and advice on why there are concerns and what to do about children and technical devices.

According to the latest statistics, the average child in the US spends 7.5 hours per day on social media. A 2009 study of kids from 8 years to 18 years showed that tweens are on social media for 6 hours a day, and teens for 9 hours a day. This doesn’t include time spent on texting! (from Yalda Uhis, child psychology researcher) Seventy percent of kids have cell phones by the age of 13 years and a good deal of homework is done on computers now. With this much exposure of kids to technology, it’s important for parents to know the effects that devices have on their children.

baby on computer

What happens in children’s brains when exposed to phones, tablets and computers? According to Dr. Victoria Dunkley, a top child psychiatrist in the US, the bright light from the devices can cause stress, and the intense colors and rapid movement lead to the reward center of the brain being activated. The result is that the constant stimulation leads to kids having trouble being stimulated by their natural environments. In brain scans it looks like substance abuse! As well, there is trouble coming away from the devices, with irritability and meltdowns being a common result. It follows that no child under the age of two should be on a device.

Simon Sinek, a well known TED Talk speaker, said that social media releases dopamine, one of the substances that causes alcoholism, and, in his opinion, an entire generation of vulnerable adolescents is growing up addicted. He said that when teens are anxious or stressed, they turn to their devices to help them feel good and this is the “same as offering vodka after a stressful day”. When giving a 12-year-old a phone, “it’s like giving them marijuana”, he added. He said that phone addiction exhibits some of the same qualities as gambling addiction, leading to lower self-esteem and depression.

How much is too much? Dr. Dan Siegel said that teens need eight to ten hours of sleep. Because many are on their screens late at night, they are not getting enough sleep, so the toxins in their brains don’t get cleaned up. Because one link on social media leads to another, being on devices can feel “as if you never get enough, and teens are vulnerable to this”, he said. Discomfort arises if a phone isn’t answered. There is fear of missing something and pressure from a child’s peer group. Protests can lead to meltdowns when parents take the device away.

Texting doesn’t develop non-verbal skills and conversation skills. Many kids have trouble answering the phone or going to the front door because of lack of face-to-face experience. Their heads are down, instead of being aware of the world around them. Even when grandparents travel long distances to see them, their phones or their gaming take precedence.

head down

Yalda Uhis said that adults and kids alike are easily distracted. They must constantly hold their devices in their hands. When in a conversation with another person, even the sight of a phone can be a distraction. “If it beeps, who gets chosen?”she asked. When parents answer their phones when with their kids, children feel diminished and less valuable.

It is important to realize the effects that technology and social media can have on our children and on our families. Because digital devices are not going away, and because there is much value associated with them, we have to learn how to live with them. We need to know how to introduce them to our children and how to help them become self-regulating so they don’t become addicted. We need to help them know how to connect with others, and enjoy life outside of their devices.

Please stay with me and look for my next post. In Parts Two and Three of this series, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and introduce tech devices to your children, and how to handle meltdowns and addiction situations. Instead of being fearful of your kids’ involvement with the digital world, you can learn how to deal with it and maintain your positive relationships with your children.

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