Five Ways To Keep Technology From Ruining Your Kids

A new Pew Research study asks the question many parents want the answer to:  What is going to come of this generation of hyper-connected kids? Are they going to be able to keep jobs that-gasp!-ban social media at the office?  Will they be able to converse with non-digitized beings or in settings without screens separating them from human contact?  Will they be able to communicate in more than 140 characters?

Responses were split nearly equally:  About 50% said that by 2020 people under the age of 35 would ‘not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask.’  Being able to ‘search effectively and access collective intelligence via the internet’ is one of the benefits of technology, say these responders.

The other 50% came to nearly the opposite conclusion:

“They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.”

Parents with teenagers glued to the computer wonder if such large amounts of screen time is healthy for growing minds.  With eight computers in our house, I see marked changes in my children’s attitudes and treatment of each other based on how much or how little time they are online or otherwise working on the computer.  Yet one cannot deny the benefits of technology:  Without it I would not have access to online education for my teenagers, one son would not have a thriving 3D art business, one would not be able to share on YouTube the short films he produces, and I would not be able to write on this blog.  The Internet is here to stay, so what is a family to do?

Perhaps the answer is found in this comment from the Pew study:

“A key differentiator between winners and losers will be winners’ capacity to figure out the correct attention-allocation balance in this new environment. Just as we lost oral tradition with the written word, we will lose something big in the coming world, but we will gain as well. ‘As Sophocles once said, ‘Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,’” noted Tiffany Shlain, director of the film Connected and founder of the Webby Awards. ‘”

In other words, balance.  Although I struggle daily to keep my children’s screen time in check, by sheer trial and error, I’ve stumbled across a few ways that seem to work for our family.  Take them for what they are worth:

1.  Create Screen-Free Zones–While I allow the older ones great freedom to pursue their online arts, we label certain times and days Screen Free:  Weekdays from 4-8, and Sundays.  This forces them into other (hopefully people-oriented) activities like playing basketball or filming a new movie in the forest by our house.  It imposes control over their screen time that they don’t yet have the maturity to impose on themselves and gives them a reminder of how fun real (read:  non-plugged-in) life is.

2.  Make that ‘real life’ more appealing–It takes far more work than plugging the kids in, but the challenge for today’s parent is to keep encouraging non-screen activities.  Many times that means taking time away from our own work to delve into a project with them, even if it is just to prime their own creative pump.  I don’t know many boys who would turn down a dad’s offer to build a go-kart with them to play Team Fortress 2 in the basement by themselves.

3.  Model it–If we’re constantly plugged-in, how can we expect them not to be?  Turn off your own screens and watch them turn off theirs.  Kids need to see us calling people on the phone, meeting friends for lunch, reading books, and exercising without the Wii.  As we model living in the real world, we give them an idea of what that looks like.

4.  Mean it–If you are serious about bringing balance into your teenagers’ lives, often that means putting your actions where your mouth is.  As plugged-in as my boys are, they will gladly drop anything if it means doing something with my husband or me.  He walks with one of them at night, giving them a good hour of one-on-one time.  Sometimes I take one on a bike ride with me.  Other times we all walk to the school across the street to play soccer or run races.  It seems too obvious to even mention, but our kids need some memory of non-screen event so that one day they will want to recreate that sort of fun instead of associating all happiness with the cyber world.

5.  Miscellaneous Ideas–I pull the boys upstairs at intervals throughout the day to talk, have them do chores, or take them on my errands with me.  I also force a one-hour of physical activity on them every day (ever seen the hunched shoulders of the true computer addict?).  This is a good time for them to grab a younger sibling and jump on the tramp, killing two birds (exercise and relationship-building) at the same time.

Technology is, or can be, a good thing.  But when I notice attitudes slipping, I know a good dose of real life is in order.  Too much of any one activity makes for a lop-sided child (or adult for that matter).  As silly as it seems to make such a big deal out of helping our kids experience live fun, with the amount of technology we have tugging at us all day long, it’s all that much more important to help our kids find life beyond the screen.

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Have you found some screen management techniques the rest of us could use?  Discuss!

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