Plugged-In Families: The Art of Balancing Technology in Your Family
My personal technology wake-up call came immediately following one of my daughter’s swim lessons. “I saw you swim by yourself using only a floatie! I was so proud of you!” I gushed. “Nuh-uh” she retorted in the way that only a four-and-a-half year old can. “You were typing on your phone the whole time. I saw you.” I stuttered and stammered, not expecting to be called on the carpet by someone who can’t yet tie her own shoes. But the point was still there—my life had become increasingly “plugged in” and my child had taken notice.
For many families, being plugged in has become a way of life. Handheld video games, iPhone apps and portable DVD players have become an essential part of the family arsenal for vacations, trips to restaurants and general entertainment. During the less-structured days of summer, technology can play an even larger role in the life of the kids of all ages—leaving concerned parents wondering how to get a handle on screen time as the school year approaches.
“For the average child, the only thing they do more than watch screens is sleep,” explains Robert Kesten, Executive Director for the Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness in Washington D.C. “The impact on children and families is by and large negative due to the fact that the machines and their content control our use, rather than we controlling them.” After the swim lesson fiasco, I had to wonder if I truly was controlling my screen time—or if it was controlling me—and what impact it was having on my family. And, according to current research, I am not alone.
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in May 2010, most Americans agree that devices like smartphones, cellphones and computers have made their lives better and jobs easier. Many also acknowledge that these devices can be intrusive, increase stress levels and make it difficult to concentrate. In the same poll, one in seven married respondents said the use of these devices was causing them to see less of their spouse, and one in ten indicate that technology causes them to spend less time with their children under 18.
The New York Times (“Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price,” June 8, 2010) also reported that on average, people consume triple the information than was common 50 years ago. To compound this, research has shown that when we are plugged in, our attention is being constantly divided. New research shows that the average computer user changes windows or checks email approximately 37 times every hour and visits an average of 40 websites each day. Not only is it affecting our ability to concentrate and making us information junkies, it may also be creating a type of dependence for a purely physiological reason.
Researchers believe that this constant stimulation triggers an increase of dopamine in our brain. Similar to adrenaline, dopamine is a chemical messenger that affects the brain’s ability to experience pleasure and pain, controls emotional response and plays a crucial role in our mental and physical health. Researchers say that this surge of dopamine may become addictive, leaving us to feel bored or unsettled when we are disconnected from our technology. But, despite our love affair with interactivity, is being constantly connected good for our brains?
From Virtual Networks to Neural Networks
Scientists say that this information juggling may be changing how people think and behave. As recently as 15 years ago, scientists maintained that the human brain stopped developing after childhood and that the brain’s network of neurons were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Now, it’s widely believed that neural networks continue to develop and can be affected by how we use our brains.
Emerging research shows some of the upsides of technology use.Imaging studies at the University of California, Irvine, showed that Internet users showed greater brain activity than non-connected counterparts and were theorized to be growing their neural circuitry as they surfed. Additionally, researchers at the University of Rochester found that some video games actually improve reaction time and helped players hone their attention to detail, giving hope that gaming could someday be used for both rehabilitative and educational purposes.
Still, many scholars fear that our constant state of distraction and mental overload may ultimately undermine our creativity, hinder deep thought, interrupt work and family time, diminish empathy and interpersonal communication, and even have deadly consequences when combined with activities such as driving.
Connected Kids: The Bad and The Good
When it comes to our children, research is just beginning to give a glimpse into how technology is impacting the next generation. While our children are growing up as comfortable with a mouse as building blocks, research suggests that constant digital stimulation might be creating attention problems—at an age when they are already struggling to understand interactions, determine priorities and control impulses.
A 2010 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation paints a picture of how much screen time our kids are receiving. According to the Kaiser study:
• Two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of two hours a day (despite American Academy of Pediatrics guidance of no screen time for kids under two and no more than one hour for kids older than two).
• 75 percent of kids in grades 7-12 use technology for an average of 7. 5 hours a day.
• Two-thirds of the children in the study reported that the TV is on during family meal times.
• Seven out of 10 kids have a TV in their bedrooms, and one-third have Internet access.
Dr. Mary Strom Larson, author of Watch It! What Parents Needs to Know to Raise Media Smart Kids and professor of Communications at Northern Illinois University explains that parents need to be watchful and aware of how kids are using technology. “Technology is not going to go away,” Dr. Larson said. “Parents need to focus on how to help kids operate independently with technology and give them the skills they need to deal with it. Parents simply can’t assume that because a kid is 12 or 13 [years old] that they are mature enough to handle online dangers.”
For children, the documented effects of too much technology can be disconcerting. As the number of hours of technology use increase, studies have found a decreased interest in homework and school, resulting in lower grades. Heavily connected kids tend to be more obese, have a diminished capacity for intimacy and faceto- face interaction, have lower self-esteem and experience boredom, sadness, aggression and crankiness when not engaged with screens.
However, Dr. Cynthia Green, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York is not convinced that changes in our children’s attention and ability to focus as a result of technology are bad. Rather, she argues, it might actually be an adaptive reaction to a changing world.
Dr. Green’s work focuses on how our everyday activities affect brain health and performance. When looking at how technology affects day-to-day living, she likens the current day to other past eras when major shifts in human capability changed daily life, such as the Industrial Revolution and the invention of electricity. “I’m not sure if it is better or worse,” she said. “It’s just a different way of life. Technology will be changing for them and the skills that they are acquiring could actually be adaptive in helping them to thrive in the future.”
While she acknowledges that some researchers express concern about the impact of technology on children’s brains, she thinks the focus should be on how kids are learning to work with divided focus. “We need to realize that the world that our kids are going to live in requires them to be able to divide their attention in this manner,” Dr. Green said. “We can’t really make value judgments at this time, since we don’t know what the full impact will be. Perhaps we are training them to think in the way that they will need to in order to succeed.”
“The fact is that kids model what parents do,” Dr. Larson explains. “If your kids see you plugged in all the time, they will do the same. If your kids see you reading a book, they will, too. You must choose to do behaviors that you want your kids to do and they will emulate it.”
Five Steps for Technology-Balanced Kids
While the long-term influence of technology is unclear, Dr. Green advises parents to take steps to control its impact rather than worrying about unknown effects.
Dr. Peggy Kendall, author and Associate Professor in the Communication Studies Department at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, agrees with Dr. Green’s advice. “It’s not like technology is going to change, ” said Dr. Kendall. “As parents, we must sit down and think and talk about how and when our families will use technology. This is especially important in the beginning when kids are first learning to use it.”
- Consider Your Technology Use. “We are role models for how to use technology,” Dr. Kendall said. “We must be wise and intentional on how and when we use technology because our children will adopt the same type of values that we demonstrate to them.”
- Set Time Limits. Set limits for the types of technology that can be used on school days, on weekends and during family time and for how long. Involve your children in the discussion and use that input to set rules and restrictions that are applicable to every family member—even parents. “With kids, you must be consistent in rules about technology and enforce it unwaveringly,” Dr. Larson said.
- Set Boundaries. Talk to your kids about what is appropriate to share through social networking, texting, and email, and what topics are off limits. “Parents need to get a Facebook page and be friends with their kids,” said Dr. Larson. “Watch the language and content of their page to get a window into your kid’s life.”
- Strive for Balance. Be cognizant of providing your children with an array of activities, not using technology as constant entertainment. “One of the best things we can do to keep the brain healthy is to balance athletic and social activities with technology,” said Dr. Green. “Balance online activities with those that require sustained focus, such as reading, engaging in the arts, playing board games, working puzzles, playing chess or doing yoga.”
- Remember That One Size Doesn’t Fit All. It’s up to parents to determine the types of devices and how much access each child should have. Depending on factors such as age and maturity, parents should examine whether a child should use technology in their bedrooms or only in shared spaces, if each child should have their own device or if the family should share it among members, who is responsible for the care and safety of the device and what to do in the event that the device becomes damaged or broken. “Your kids only need to have the technology that is appropriate for them,” Dr. Larson said. “Just because the neighbor kids have it, doesn’t mean your kids have to as well.”
Multi-Tasking Moms and Distracted Dads
In addition to affecting our work and personal lives, heavy technology use is also having an impact on how our families function. Child development experts are now starting to look at how a parent’s use of technology is affecting children through the study of distracted parenting.
According to The New York Times (“The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In,” June 9, 2010), there is little research on the effects of distracted parenting, but experts say there is no doubt that the overuse of technology creates less-engaged parents. Being engaged, in terms of directly interacting and responding to kids, remains a crucial part of early childhood development and parents are urged to look at their technology use and consider how that affects their ability to meet their children’s needs.
Dr. Kendall first started researching distracted parenting when she saw her own teenagers increasingly interacting with friends using technology. She says she quickly adopted these same habits—though she admits that she had no idea if these new methods of communication were good or bad. “I thought if I couldn’t figure it out then other parents probably couldn’t either,” Dr. Kendall explained. “Our kids are learning to communicate in a completely new way. They are being raised differently and their brains are forming differently. And I knew I had to get a handle on it before I could be a good parent.”
Dr. Kendall’s definition of distracted parenting is simple—it’s when technology causes us to become less responsive to our kids, often ignoring a child seated right next to us. “It sends a powerful message every time we ignore our kids for technology,” she explains. “Whether we mean it or not, it says the cell phone is more important than they are, or that our work is more important than their needs or desires.”
In a recent blog post entitled “Mommy! Can You Log Off and Play With Me?” Dr. Kendall explains that there are two ways that children generally respond to a parent distracted by technology.
Some kids chose to act out to force the attention back to them, through physical misbehavior (hitting, biting or kicking) to demand the attention they are lacking. Others, though, feel ignored, displaced and unworthy of attention each time their parent favors technology over interaction. “[They feel] a little less worthy every time their parent takes that call,” Kendall writes.
“And you can be sure that when those children grow up, they will do the exact same thing with the people who are important in their lives.”
Dr. Kendall admits to falling prey to the traps of distracted parenting, and now purposefully puts away her cell phone when she picks her daughter up from school. “I used to always be on the phone. Now I let my daughter see me put it away and then I engage her in a conversation,” Dr Kendall said. “Things like this tell our kids that they are important and communicates their worth to us. It also shows that you are in control of your personal technology use and models healthy boundaries for your kids.”
Living with Healthy High Tech Habits
Unsure of how much technology is affecting your life? Dr. Kendall suggests a technology fast to help you gain perspective. “Go one or two days without your cell phone and see how it changes your life,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t see how much technology is affecting us until we step away.”
“Being intentional about how we use technology is not easy, but it sets an important precedent for our kids,” she said. “Next time you reach for the phone or pop open the laptop, check to make sure you are balancing the need for your virtual connection with the need to model healthy choices to your kids.”
“Ultimately, the important thing is to take control over technology,” Dr. Green said. “It’s your choice whether you check your email during your daughter’s dance recital.” In my case, the next time my daughter hits the pool, you can bet my eyes will be on her and not a screen.
Technology in Real Life
How does an average family use technology? Norman mom of two Christina McDougall told us how they do it in her family. Here is an excerpt from her interview:
- MFM: How does your family handle technology?
- CM: We have rules for the amount of screen time allowed per day, about 2 hours.
- MFM: Do you feel that technology improves your parenting?
- CM: Access to the Internet definitely helps us answer the kids’ questions better and more immediately than we could otherwise. My kids can learn about things I know nothing about. On the flip side, we have to help the kids learn how to evaluate the reliability of different online sources.
- MFM: Do your kids seem influenced by the devides that their friends and classmates have?
- CM: My kids do ask to have games and devices that their friends have. They are sick to death of the explanation that our family has different rules for what we allow.
- MFM: What do you think is the most important thing that you as a parent can do to help teach your kids how to use technology responsibly?
- CM: The most important thing is to set consistent guidelines for screen time and I stick to them even if there’s lots of begging and whining. Also, I try to help my kids find balance among many different activities so they can see that social time, study time, chores and non-screen fun have a place in their lives as well as screen time. I have to model that behavior as well. My kids won’t learn to turn off the devices unless they see me working, reading, making things with my own hands and volunteering my time outside the house, too.”
View the interview in its entirety at metrofamilymagazine.com/august-2010.
For more information:
• The Center for Online Addiction includes self-assessment tests to determine if your technology use or that of your child could be considered an addiction. Netaddiction.com
• The Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness has the purpose of providing information so people can live healthier lives in functional families by taking control of the electronic media in their lives, not allowing it to control them. Screentime.org
Meet the Experts
Dr. Mary Strom Larson has been a professor of Communication at Northern Illinois University for over twenty years, specializing in the impact of the media on children and adolescents. She is the author of Watch It! What Parents Need to Know to Raise Media- Smart Kids. Maryslarson.com.
Dr. Peggy Kendall is an Associate Professor in the Communication Studies Department at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN. She is the author of three books looking at how technology impacts children, including Reboot: Refreshing your Faith in a High Tech World. Peggykendall.com
Dr. Cynthia R. Green has served on the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Mount Sinai/New York University Health System since 1990, and is currently an assistant clinical professor in the school’s Department of Psychiatry. She is one of America’s foremost memory fitness and brain health experts, having appeared on Good Morning America, 20/20, CNBC, and National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation,” as well as in the pages of Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and Parenting. Totalbrainhealth.com.
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine.