“For the last time, get off the computer!”
” If you don’t put that joystick down, you’ll have no thumbs by the time you’re 30!”
“Is that phone stuck to your hand?”
Sound familiar? These are common laments of parents everywhere who are frustrated by their children’s continual use of technology. In fact, technology battles top the list of challenges raised in parenting classes held by the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. These concerns have increased after recent studies linked social media use with teen anxiety and depression.
If only we could go back to the good old days – only three television channels, landline phones and no email, internet or streaming anything (guess I just dated myself there). The fact is, there were aspects of that technology-free life that weren’t so good, and getting our kids to unplug entirely is not realistic. But what if instead of insisting they unplug, we simply focus more on what they’re doing when they’re plugged in and how those activities can benefit them and even improve family life?
Quality matters more than quantity
Guidance from the American Pediatric Association suggests parents should focus less on how much time a child spends on digital media, and more on the content of that media and the context in which they’re using it. The fact is, when used correctly, there are positive aspects to technology that can ultimately contribute to our children’s future success.
Curating that content and context can include assessing how they contribute to the “4 Critical C’s” that research has linked to success later in life. The 4 C’s include Connection through close relationships with others, particularly immediate family; confidence that they Count and their voice matters as a result of the contribution they make to their family and community; feeling Capable of taking care of themselves and in control of some aspects of their lives; and Courage to face what comes their way and to handle life’s problems.
Children who don’t gain these critical 4 C’s in a positive manner often turn to technology to provide them in a more negative fashion. Those without a secure connection with a social group or family members may seek a sense of connection through strangers online. Children without courage may hide behind their anonymous cyberbullying or use technology to cheat or plagiarize rather than risk failing a test or assignment. And if they don’t feel capable within the household or have a way to contribute, they may wonder “Why bother?” and escape to a video game where they do feel capable and powerful.
“You don’t want your children to get anywhere near that tipping point, where they feel that video games are the only thing they are good at,” says Dr. Leonard Sax, physician and parenting book author. He reminds parents that they need to encourage and support their children in mastering other aspects of their lives, including homework, chores and interpersonal relationships, and to give them positive power in each of these areas.
Technology use does not have to be isolating and escapist. We can we use technology in our favor to help increase our children’s daily dose of the 4 C’s.
There’s no denying that these days children connect socially through social media, live video gaming, texting and more. Parents need to understand before setting limits around this new mode of socializing. Stopping it entirely can cut off a child’s social lifeline, but setting limits around it can provide time to develop competency and creativity in other areas. And technology can be used to strengthen family connections, in some of these ways:
- Share family jokes of good news through text chats or GroupMe’s
- Hold family video game tournaments or launch a biweekly family YouTube contest to find the funniest cat videos
- Use FaceTime or Skype to video chat with distant family members or friends, which is more connecting than texting alone.
All of these can keep kids positively engaged during their technology time. Modeling positive non-electronic communication as much as possible also has an impact, including using good old-fashioned phone calls and in-person conversations, rather than texts or emails, to connect interpersonally.
Increasing contribution COUNTS
An online family calendar that everyone can access and add to will give children a sense of control over their own schedules. Including kids in setting the family technology rules will also help them feel that their voice counts. They are more likely to adhere to limits that they helped establish. Often, our kids are more creative around limit setting than we are.
Technology can increase a child’s sense of control or capability when we put them in the expert chair. Parents can ask them to:
- Show us how to play their favorite video or computer game
- Make us a new workout play list
- Perform some family work, such as finding new dinner recipes online, generating an online weekly meal plan and grocery list or even inputting expenses into the family’s online budget.
One Olney mom designated the task of organizing the family’s online photo albums to her daughter. “She would download photos from the family camera almost immediately after they were taken, tag each person in the photos and establish folders by date and event type,” she says. “When it came time to make the annual photo calendar for the grandparents, she needed no time to locate the appropriate photos for them, but it would have taken me hours.”
Feeling encouraged about their ability to handle these electronic contributions may lead them to become more helpful with non-electronic household tasks as well.
Successfully tackling new challenges helps to fill our courage cup. Even young kids can use YouTube videos to learn how to do household tasks such as changing the furnace filter or decorating a birthday cake, so think creatively about how you can engage your children in mastering less ordinary household tasks.
Also, remember that to be encouraging literally means “to give courage to,” so sending words of encouragement via text such as “I noticed you studied a long time for that spelling test. Hope it goes well!” or “Remembering about that time we went ziplining and how much fun we had once we got over our fear,” can give kids the little endorphin hits they need to accomplish their next challenging task.
Thinking of ways to engage our children positively with their technology may soon have us saying, “while you’re on the computer, can you find a new pasta recipe that you might want me to make for dinner next week?”