Taking Control of Your Digital Household (Part 1): Obstacles
We survive through our children, not just in the obvious genetic sense but, perhaps more importantly, through our values and ideas too. Protecting our children physically is relatively simple: feeding, clothing, meeting threats, and so on, but due to the evolution of communications technology protecting their minds has become a complex issue. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps we can use as parents to regain control of our children’s exposure to the digital landscape and how they deal with material they are exposed to. The greatest difficulty is identifying where there are potential problems. To that end I’ve organized this article into a series, explaining our current situation, and progressively covering what we can do about it as parents.
It’s no secret that children in our society are too frequently gazing at electronic screens, but exactly how that is bad may not be as obvious. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP), we now introduce our kids to screen time by 4 months of age (this was 4 years in 1979), and overexposure is associated with language and cognitive delays. Indeed, the AAP recommends zero screen time for all children under 2 unless a parent is co-watching and the programming is high-quality. A full 24 percent of our adolescents describe themselves as “constantly connected” to the internet and half report feeling “addicted” to their phones. Video games are designed to reinforce behavior that maximizes play time to the point that interrupting it causes tantrums, and extended child-parent conflict. One in eight youth in the 10 to 19 age group have sexted. If we were to just assume that screen time interfered only with their free time (many of you know this is not the case) we would have a profound problem on our hands where the time we may spend with our children, telling stories, teaching lessons, ensuring our values as much as possible survive another generation, is replaced with the stories and values of some Hollywood or New York City producer.
I’ve got bad news if your kids fit the description above—you may be leading by example. Parents average out a whopping 9.5 hours of screen time per day. One study done on parents show that they also have tantrums when interrupted, lashing out at their own children, sometimes physically, when the child attempts to bid attention away from their parents’ devices. Our employers have leveraged communications technology to demand more of our time on-call, creating environments where we can never truly be off the clock. Adults prone to addiction also get a mention in the video games category: A father of 3 died during a 22-hour streaming marathon, and a Korean StarCraft player, age 22, collapsed dead after a 50-hour gaming session. The television era problem of using an electronic device to stand in for you as a parent is as prolific and abused as ever, and studies show it disproportionately effects the parents of children that are already difficult, which in turn makes the children even more difficult as bids for attention, mentioned above, come into play.
There is a two-way parenting disconnect. Children are born into an information age their parents still haven’t come to grips with. To confuse matters, communication tech provides your children more opportunities than ever to learn things normally outside their reach, and for parents to expand their skills part-time to better their situation. Schools too are leveraging screen time not only as supplemental material, but increasingly as a replacement for instruction. Communications technologies are tools parents can leverage to great benefit for themselves and their children, but like any useful tool they are also dangerous when abused. The goal then is to learn what the proper use of these tools are and how to avoid the parenting pitfalls of the digital age. Through this series I will cover many types of electronic consumption including: television, smart phones and tablets, game consoles and computers, and electronic consumption in education.
Each of these things warrant their own detailed explanation but the solutions to each have a few things in common: leading by example, and co-participation. As an example, both my father and grandfather heckled news anchors as they tried to spew bullshit into my mind, which helped form my generally low opinion of self-described experts and authority figures, and primed me to watch for biases in news reporting. My parents would also let me know in no uncertain terms when I had outgrown a program or when it was teaching things they disagreed with. My parents would also participate in any ‘no TV’ periods they set for us. The answer to so many of these issues is making sure that you use these devices to spend time with your children instead of apart from them.