What Tech Experts Know About Kids and Screens

7 Ways To Apply Their Wisdom in Your Home
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"I think back to how I might have done things differently …  I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets."  —Melinda Gates

"Maybe I should have waited before putting a computer in their pockets." This is a common line of thinking from many technology experts. Perhaps it is because they know exactly how powerful this technology is, that it’s designed to use up as much of our time as possible. Put these devices in a teen’s hand and we know that a teen brain is not prepared to handle the harmful effects of such an addictive "toy."

"Phones and apps aren't good or bad by themselves,” Gates said, “but for adolescents who don't yet have the emotional tools to navigate life's complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It's more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it."

Why do technology leaders in our country have such strong opinions when it comes to digital devices and their own kids? They certainly have an insider’s view of the industry and the way these gadgets have transformed our lives, including the youngest among us. They understand the overwhelming hold devices have on children and, as a precaution, often send their own kids to low-tech schools to ensure they have limited screen access and screen time. Many tightly regulate screen use at home, too, as the late Steve Jobs did. What do the experts know that we don’t know?

7 Reasons Why Waiting To Give Your Child a Smartphone is a Good Idea

  1. Kids don’t have the right tools. Teens are not equipped to make good choices on a tool that is so powerfully equipped to override their common sense and hijack all their time.
  2. Teen brains become what they do. The teen brain goes through the process of reorganizing to adapt to its environment; this is called neuronal pruning. In a nutshell, it strengthens the brain pathways that are being used and prunes away the connections that are not being used. Consider how your teen spends most of his day.
  3. Screens are not neutral; they are a stressful activity. Games and smartphones offer an exciting concoction of neurochemicals at no charge to the user. These chemicals cause a cascade of physical changes including stress and anxiety in a staggering number of teens.
  4. Teens and tweens can’t control the chemical craving. One child against a thousand video game and smartphone developers who use neuroscience to “dope” their neural reward systems is not a good match, and the experts know it.
  5. Teens are most vulnerable to outside influences. Teens are looking for their identity and how they fit into their peer world. This normal desire is exacerbated online, in front of the whole world. As parents, we want our kids to get their values at home, not to look online for values and validation.
  6. A reliance on screens does not cultivate true communication skills.  Learning how to look people in the eye, have a firm handshake and other social skills are not learned on a phone. Yet they are highly sought-after skills in the real world.
  7. Early addictions are the worst. Experts know that the teen years are the highest risk period for cultivating lifetime addictions. Just as drinking or viewing porn at an early age forms a compulsion loop, so does use of screens for some. Medical science has proven that the brain develops screen addictions the same way it does to porn or gambling. Is this the pathway you want your teenager’s brain to be developing?  

So What Can Parent do?

Talk with your teens about brain development and the effects of too much screen time. When your children understand that their brain is still developing, it can be easier for them to understand why you set limits or delay use.  Start here to begin the discussion.

Look for ways to move social time offline. Intentionally promote in-person social skills in your teens’ daily life. They will need your help because they naturally want to immerse themselves in screen time instead.

Replace screen time with other activities such as sports and hobbies. Maybe start a new family tradition. Remember to put your own phone down when you are with your kids.

Delay social media and video games. What’s the rush? Push off social media and video game use for as long as you can with your children. And, if they are already users, give them a screen break. You, the parent, will need to step up and take control of this stressor in their lives because they can’t or won’t do it on their own.

Use humor! A secret weapon that we don’t use enough is our ability to lighten up and de-stress conflict that involves our kids by using humor. Don’t get upset when your teens beg for more screens! Decide ahead of time that you will not allow a screen to control their happiness or to hijack your family. Put it in perspective for them. Do not argue with your kids over screen time. Parent like a coach: Review, set new rules and then review again.

Technology experts are well aware of where our culture is going and the power of the devices in the hands of their  users. Overuse of technology could dramatically change our children, and can adversely impact our ability to communicate effectively with each other. As tech companies continue to study, innovate and embed these devices into our daily lives, some tech leaders like Melinda Gates are now seeing the warning signs and, in response, making smart decisions for their children in their own homes. Let’s listen to the experts and take a fresh look at the screens in our own children’s lives; we don’t want to wish years from now that we had set them on a different path.

For more tips on how manage childhood screens go to Families Managing Media.