‘Digital Heroin’ and Kids: A Problem With Manageable Solutions

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The Problem:

Sitting on my friend’s porch this past Labor Day weekend, I was thrilled my kids (ages 3.5 and 5) were playing outside soaking it up with a group of new kids. Since mine were the youngest of the bunch, I kept a safe distance until I saw a commotion. When I walked over to see why all ten kids were clambering up the play set, I noticed the two fourth grade girls had taken out their (very own) cell phones, and were taking group selfies and sending them to some of their friends. Regardless of the trampoline, bikes, scooters, swing set, and variety of Power Wheels at their disposal, these two screens sucked every last one of them in like a black holes.

I spend my days in schools talking with students and parents about how to safely navigate technology, so I’m not at all shocked by the fact 4th graders have access to their very own devices, recreationally utilizing them outside, on a sunny summer day – it’s actually more common than a lot of people would like to believe. And we’re not talking flip phones or pay-for phones – I’m talking the latest and greatest smartphone models, equipped with full access to the fastest wireless networks and data plans, just like the ones you and I have as grown adults. While technology is undoubtedly changing the landscape for our kids at home and at schools in phenomenal ways, it’s no secret that overuse (amongst adults as well) is a growing problem.

Last week the New York Post ran a gripping article entitled “It’s digital heroin: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.” It discussed the implications of kids having unlimited, early access to these devices, including UCLA Doctor Peter Whybrow referring to screens as “electronic cocaine” due to the level of dopamine that’s released while using technology. The author, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, also discussed other psychological implications of being addicted to devices, such as feeling “alone, alienated, purposeless and bored.” If we pause and think of people in our own lives, I’m confident we could easily come up with at least 3 kids that would fit this description. A few months ago I consulted with a family whose 8-year-old was so obsessed with Minecraft that he would “forget” to get up and go to the bathroom – and this wasn’t the first time I’d heard of this happening.

The Solution:

Put. The. Devices. Down. For a day, for a couple of hours. At the dinner table, in restaurants. Identifying and enforcing appropriate on/off times for your family not only helps to combat the issue of kids being addicted to devices, but to forces healthy face-to-face interaction and builds upon important social skills that are often lost behind screens. Like many good, healthy behaviors, the earlier you start – the better chance you have for success. In my house, our kids are barely allowed access to my iPad, and when they do have it (maybe once a week), it’s sitting with my husband or me. We also don’t allow devices at any meal – at our house or a in a restaurant; as a byproduct they’ve gained some great life skills, like how to entertain themselves while waiting. What works in my house may not work in yours, but restrictions need to be set (early) to help our kids have a healthy relationship with technology – just like anything else for that matter.

And no pressure, but all the brilliant people are doing it. In fact, on a recent Today Show appearance, James Cameron – the mastermind behind the groundbreaking technology in the movie Avatar – said, “I’m a low tech guy – I’m a high tech guy when I need to be, but I like to set a good example for my kids. Don’t spend all day with your faces in your phones. I like to look people in the eye.” The New York Post article also pointed to major Tech Giants who are low or no-tech parents, such as Steve Jobs and the founders of Google who attended no-tech Montessori schools. They’re doing OK for themselves, and your kids will too.

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