It goes without saying that modern technology has made our lives easier. If anything, the lure of computers, smartphones, and the internet are difficult (if not impossible) to escape in our world today. However, all this time spent texting, chatting, and watching YouTube comes at the expense of more personal interactions, and many parents out there — the ones like myself who didn't grow up with all these gadgets — may look at this reliance on technology in wonder and perhaps a bit of dismay, even in lieu of the conveniences.
Parenting Is Hard
The reality is, parenting is hard work — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, as well. The job of being the primary caregiver to your children can take a huge toll because mothers and fathers give up so much of themselves for the sake of their children. It can get to the point where we struggle just to get a break and allow ourselves some free time.
Under these circumstances, what parent hasn't turned on the TV or let the kids surf the web to give ourselves a break? Texting and social media, and to a lesser extent online video games, have become the norm amongst children today. Our kids are bombarded with messages about the coolness and popularity of these activities, and this message is reinforced by parents who are constantly checking texting or checking their smartphones.
Too Much of a Good Thing
All this time spent in front of the TV or on the computer is cause for concern among parents. Scientific research is beginning to confirm this intuition.
In a recent study out of Stanford, researchers found that girls between the ages of 8 to 12 years who spent a majority of their time watching videos and using digital devices lagged in their social and emotional development. Scientists arrived at their findings by surveying 3,461 girls in that age bracket, then determined how much time they spent watching videos, listening to music, doing their homework, and using social media. Researchers also measured how frequently they were doing two or more of these activities at the same time.
What they found was that multitasking and spending excessive amounts of time in front of the screen were statistically associated with negative emotional consequences, including feeling less social success, feeling abnormal, associating with friends whom their parents may not approve of, and losing sleep. While a correlation seemed to exist, the researchers stressed that a definite cause and effect relationship had not been demonstrated, even though one of the scientists described the findings as "disturbing" and even "scary."
The data, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, probably does not come as a complete surprise to most parents, most of whom did not grow up with the number of digital and social media options that kids have today. The consumption of digital media is becoming increasingly prevalent in our culture, and the situation is not helped by the unrealistic (and probably inflated) level of happiness and contentment that are often depicted on people's Facebook pages, leaving kids feeling as if everyone was happy but them.
The Good News
The news is not all bad. The authors of the study indicate that something as simple as more face-to-face interaction seemed to counteract all of the negative social and emotional consequences, even when digital media and screen time were a significant part of their lives.
Here are some helpful tips to help your kids develop more healthy interactions and temper the negative consequence of all that digital media.
1. Make Family Meal Time a Priority
Not only in terms of sitting down to a healthy meal, but stress face-to-face interaction, free from distractions like television, smartphones, video games, and iPods. Find topics that everyone likes to discuss, and make the effort to be engaged.
2. Limit Screen Time
There is no question that digital media is a huge part of everyone's life, especially children, but we as parents have a duty to set boundaries and limits for our kids. Don't let screen time overtake the important time you spend with your kids, because as the cliché goes, they grow up so fast.
3. Try Not to Over-Schedule
With school work and extra curricular activities competing with socializing with friends, it's no wonder that kids have to multitask to just keep up. Maintain perspective and know your child's interests and abilities when choosing activities, and pay close attention to what they are telling you.
4. Spend Quality Time Together
By quality time, I mean free from distractions, including TV. If you've ever had a conversation with someone who is always checking their smartphone, you can imagine what message that sends to your children: I'd rather be doing something else than talking to you.
5. Set a Good Example
Your children aren't going to take your message seriously if you aren't walking the walk. The same is true for any lifestyle habit; parents set the standard that their children (at least until a certain age) will follow.
6. Work as a Team
Parenting is the ultimate team sport, and important lessons are not going to sink unless both parents work together. If the goal is to spend more quality time as a family, then both parents have to walk the walk.
7. Be Consistent and Firm
Telling your kids one thing one day, and then another the next will only serve to lessen your authority, not to mention your sincerity. When it comes to important messages, consistency is important, not to mention standing your ground.
8. Show Them That You Care
Sometimes caring goes beyond just being present or providing material possessions and requires taking a sincere interest in their lives. There is a window of opportunity during which children really want us to be a part of their lives, after which they no longer want us around, so take advantage of this time to really be involved.
Let's face it, being a parent isn't easy, but with greater challenge comes greater reward, and making a little more effort will not only improve the lives of your children, but will make your own life that much more rewarding.
If you have questions or concerns about your children's use of digital devices and social media, speak with your pediatrician or your local school counselor. For more information, visit the websites for Kid's Health and the Mayo Clinic.