Taking control of family's tech habits

By Aisha Sultan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

I'd like to meet the parent not guilty of at least occasionally resorting to smartphone syndrome with a bored, cranky or restless child.

We've all seen it: Mom or Dad hands a little one an iPhone or similar such device and immediately the gadget's most magical quality manifests: It's ability to soothe — nay — hypnotize a child while the parent shops, chats, waits in line or completes any number of tasks made easier by an occupied and relatively quiet child.

And, really, what's the harm in a few games of Angry Birds or Temple Run? Some of those apps actually look educational, with spelling lessons or chess strategy being taught.

But psychologist Jim Taylor, author of the upcoming book "Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-fueled World" argues that we are setting harmful defaults in our young children's mind with this behavior.

"What the child is learning is that whenever they get bored or cranky, they will be entertained," he said. He sees parents giving children too much unguided access to technology at too young an age. All parents need moments of downtime or a break, he says, but these should be an exception rather than the rule.

"Most parents put kids in front of screens as a way of medicating them, so (they) don't have to work as hard," he said. That can be a difficult truth to accept.

As someone who works hard during the school year to enforce strict limits on all types of screen-time and media consumption, I'll be the first to admit, yes, it is easier to let tech toys cast their spell. We relax our screen-time rules during the summer, and there is a notable difference in my children's default behavior when they are allowed access to screens more freely. They reach for the mesmerizing gadgets before all else.

They recently accompanied me to an hourlong board meeting during which I needed to ensure they would be on their best behavior. As a hedge against fidgeting, I allowed one child a handheld game device and the other an iPad. Even with the sound turned down on both devices, they were lulled into that techno-coma, spared the real-time experience of what actually was a rather boring meeting. (In fact, there may have been an adult or two checking emails or sending texts during much of the discussion).

Taylor is quick to point out that technology on its own is neither good nor bad. A television, computer or phone is value-neutral. It's how we choose to engage with it that has consequences.

We know these devices are changing the ways in which our brains work, yet we don't know what the long-term impact on our children will be. But there is evidence of deleterious effects on attention spans and our ability to focus as our time spent with technology increases. Taylor also raises the question of opportunity costs, suggesting that the time spent on a computer, phone, tablet or video game is time a child is not engaged in potentially healthy behaviors, such as developing their imaginative and creative skills through nonassisted play.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the early use of technology is educationally beneficial, he said. "If a kid wants to learn how to play chess, get a chess board. There are better ways to learn, to develop skills, through three-dimensional human interaction and physical manipulation," he said.

He encourages parents to think and discuss the role they want technology to play in their family's life. He supports the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no screen exposure before the age of 2. He suggests that an hour a day — after homework and sports and certainly not during dinner — may be a reasonable amount of tech time for some families.

But, parents first need to examine their own attitudes and behavior, he said. If the grownups are browsing the Internet on their laptops or checking their phones during meals and on trips to the park, that behavior sends a much more powerful message than the rules we attempt to establish.

In a world ruled by connectivity, it may seem counterintuitive to try to keep our children unplugged for much of their young lives.

But those are precisely the years when children will develop their habits, beliefs and attitudes about technology use, Taylor argues. They become hard-wired and are likely to return to the default settings exposed to when they were young, he said.

I'm inclined to agree.

If it is a challenge for adults to manage our own relationship with our tech toys, and we have only developed this habit in our less formative years, imagine how difficult it would be for children who have known no other way.

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