Get this: U.S. teenagers now spend a whopping NINE HOURS A DAY using media. That’s more time than most spend sleeping, learning, or hanging out with us. The nine hours includes watching TV, videos and movies, playing video games, listening to music, and checking social media.
New research shows that some 13 year olds check social media 100 times a day. Girls spend 40 minutes more daily on social networks than boys, and boys spend more time on video games than girls. Roughly 72% of kids eight and under used mobile devices in 2013, up from 38% in 2011 – a huge leap in only two years. Equally alarming is a small study out of Philadelphia that found 75% of children have their own tablets, smartphones or iPods by age four. Yep – by age four.
Clearly, technology is the dominant force in our children’s lives today. As it is, arguably, in ours. Just think of the panic that ensues when you’ve lost your phone, and relief when you find it in your own hand. So, if we adults are okay sleeping with devices under our pillows, texting while driving, and obsessively checking our phones every few minutes, what’s wrong with our kids doing the same?
Plenty, according to pediatric experts.
Technological use by kids usually occurs alone, often without adult supervision. Getting immersed in a device is isolating, even though at times it feels highly engrossing, entertaining, and as if you are connecting with another world. This lack of human interaction and modeling by adults can lead to stunted social development, most notably a lack of empathy, and an absence of “emotional intelligence” and interpersonal problem solving skills.
Additionally, particularly for the youngest users, a device is often used as a parental substitute. A quarter of parents report using devices to put their kids to sleep – even though bright screens actually prevent kids from falling asleep. Seventy percent allow their children access to mobile technology so they can get housework done or to quell a temper tantrum. Parents are essentially using media as a digital pacifier, a short-term fix to avoid conflict that doesn’t lead to long-term conflict resolution or self-soothing abilities among children.
When it comes to teenagers, one major digital risk comes from multitasking distractions when using media while driving, studying, or trying to focus on a single task for a sustained time period. A study conducted at Stanford University showed dramatic discrepancies in cognitive control and ability to process information between heavy media “multitaskers” and light media users. “It’s completely obvious that you can’t multitask and be as effective and competent,” explains James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, which conducted a national sample of more than 2,600 children. Perhaps most frustrating is that most kids who multitask digitally insist it makes no difference to their ability to concentrate or complete a task correctly and efficiently.
The other disturbing trend is growing digital addictions. It’s like watching a new type of eating disorder unfold. Teens and tweens, particularly girls, become obsessed with the number of “likes” or followers on sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. They get an artificial self-esteem boost when people approve of their photos or posts; and an equally artificial, but dangerous, susceptibility to online bullying and negativity. For boys, video games seem a particular risk, and the time spent in an unsupervised online gaming environment can become a similarly destructive and time-consuming addiction.
So what are parents supposed to do? (Particularly when we spend a huge amount of time on our devices, as well – and our kids don’t necessarily know or believe us when we insist that much of our digital obsession involves our work.) Three easy tips to keep in mind:
- Turn kids’ interest in technology into an educational tool. There are dozens (if not thousands) of apps and sites that help kids use devices to learn, such as Finny, Brainiack, Okay?, Words with Friends and Scrabble. Much as we teach kids to eat healthy foods before having dessert, direct your kids to these online uses – and require them to use them in order to have the digital junkfood of Snapchat or Instagram.
- Monitor your kids’ usage habits. Casually observe what they spend their time doing online, and how it effects their moods and self-esteem. Don’t hesitate to intervene if they become obsessed with social media and/or online video games. These can become just as dangerous as more old-fashioned problems such as anorexia or cutting.
- Model good behavior yourself. How often do you check your phone? Do you use it when you are in the car or on the couch with your kids? Tell them if you are checking on something for work. Involve them in what you find amusing online and get them to play online games with you. You’ll have more credibility – and a peek into the digital world your kids find so compelling.