“Dad, can I use your phone to play games?” asked my son recently as we drove through the southwest on a beautiful summer day. I was taken by his question. On one hand, it was a lovely day, and I had been greatly enjoying our conversation. On the other, why not let him play a game if he wants? I check my email continuously — why shouldn’t he also be able to play games continuously?
My son’s question is one that millions of parents are asked each day, whether about a phone, computer, Wii or Xbox. The essential plea is the same: “Mom or dad, can I please direct my attention to a screen?”
Parents of older children face similar challenges — for instance, whether it’s acceptable for their teen to text at the dinner table, or whether it’s tolerable for a teen to peer at his laptop when someone is trying to address him. Essentially, we wonder, just how much technology should be allowed in our lives and those of our kids?
Few parents are going to completely forbid their children from interacting with today’s amazing gadgetry. However, it’s essential that we focus on a conscious, rather than habitual, use of modern technology.
1. Technology No Longer Has Boundaries
We first need to recognize that times are extremely different today than in previous generations. Once upon a time there were built-in limitations: Kids played games in arcades or tethered themselves to home devices.
Now, as long as someone in the family has a smartphone, games and other ways of being digitally connected are always an option — whether we’re carpooling, standing in line at the market or sitting at the dinner table. And kids know it. Without fail, they tote along their PSP or cellphone or, like my son, ask to use a parent’s phone.
Furthermore, young people take to technology like no generation before them. According to a Nielson report, adult U.S. mobile users sent an average of 357 texts per month in the second quarter of 2008 versus an average of 204 calls. Teens, however, are sending or receiving an average of 3,339 texts a month, an 8% jump from the previous year.
2. Know When to Cut it Off
New technologies, from computer games to the Xbox, can be a great way for kids to learn strategy and develop hand-eye coordination, but as parents and caregivers, we need to know when enough is enough. According to a University of Bristol study, children who spent more than two hours a day at a screen had a 60% higher risk of psychological problems than children who clocked fewer viewing hours.
Just how much time is appropriate? A 2009 Kaiser study reported that children aged 8-18 engage with media 7.5 hours per day, on average. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that kids spend no more than 1-2 hours per day in front of a screen. Quite the discrepancy.
While one could argue that kids with too much technological engagement might find themselves unable to pace the work environment of the future, parents nonetheless have the responsibility to determine when too much screen time becomes unhealthy. It’s not that screens are bad, only that they need to be used in moderation. If our children are not getting exercise, face time with friends or other creative stimulation, their screen time will likely be more detrimental than purposeful.
3. The Difference Between Preference and Addiction
There is a huge difference between an addiction and a preference. A kid may prefer spending an evening surfing the Internet, simply because he or she enjoys that activity more than going out with friends or playing sports. This person functions fine without a gadget or device but might prefer it when given the chance.
In addiction, however, the person seemingly cannot live without something and experiences a deep void when it’s unavailable. How many young people today might show signs of addiction, versus simply a preference when it comes to technology? Indeed, 38% of surveyed college students indicated they couldn’t last 10 minutes before switching on some sort of electronic device.
Of course, adults often experience the same challenge. A new study found that 53% feel upset when denied access, and 40% feel lonely when they’re unable to go online, even for a short period of time. One person interviewed indicated that the 24-hour device-less experience was “like having my hand chopped off.”
Despite the attachment, a striking study of young people revealed that about 38% of those 10-18 years old feel overwhelmed by technology. For 25 -to 34-year-olds, it was slightly less at 34%. Essentially, the younger the age, the more one’s relationship with technology feels strained.
The young people in our lives may be more overwhelmed than we think, perhaps even looking to adults to help them define the difference between preference and addiction.
4. Focus on Technology That Truly Connects Us to Our Kids
To what extent are we connecting with our kids? Are we engaged with them, giving them our full attention (whether the activity is online or off), or are we living largely isolated from one another?
Recently, I was shopping at a Whole Foods in Santa Cruz, Calif., when a woman walked briskly by me, her high heels clicking rapidly across the floor. Most surprising was not that she could move that quickly in high heels, but that following close behind her was a child about 6 years old, playing a game on a small computer.
The young boy held the device right up to his face, only glancing up occasionally from the screen to make sure he did not run into his mother. The two sped through one aisle then the next, the child completely immersed in his game, oblivious for the most part to the world around him. Though physically near each other, mentally they lived in two different worlds.
On the other hand, a properly chosen game could just as easily connect, instead of distance, mother and child. As parents, we need to focus on that which unites versus isolates a family.
5. Model the Balance
In recent years, I have built a business largely by making connections with people online. Twitter andFacebook have opened up doors for remarkable engagement, and the next generation will benefit enormously from the increased means of communication available to them. Today’s social channels create ways of connecting with like-minded people — an opportunity our parents never had.
It makes little sense for parents to deny young people access to the amazing technologies of our time. At the same time, kids that can’t last 10 minutes without checking their email is cause for concern. When they can’t engage in a sustained conversation with a friend, enjoy a walk in nature or simply rest under a tree, the dangers of technology can outweigh the benefits.
The path ahead is one of conscious engagement, one in which parents join kids in games and other means of technological engagement, all the while making sure their children connect in other ways as well. The question is not, should people live connected or disconnected lives? Instead ask, how do we live connected in allaspects of our lives, whether online, talking to a family member or taking a walk outside?
The desire to be connected will not go away. But the ways we connect should expand to include more activities. That way, time spent digitally connecting will be one form of many.