Lately, there has been much debate about screen time. How much is too much? What qualifies “good” screen time vs. “bad” screen time? When is it okay to give kids some screen time freedom? The answers to these questions are often different for everyone — after all, each family is unique. But there are a few things we can learn from authors Adam Alter and Jordan Shapiro, two experts in this space.
Lesson #1: It’s More Addictive Than We Think
One of the things Alter talks most about in his book, Irresistible, is the addictive power of technology and social media. “It’s our generation’s crack cocaine,” he writes. “[Likes have] inconspicuously emerged as the first digital drug to dominate our culture.”
Likes are widely viewed as something positive and seem innocent enough — they’re just a simple reaction to a post or photo. But it’s troubling when we start to anticipate them. The “rewards” of social media validation release dopamine in the brain which keeps many of us, coming back for more. And unfortunately, online platforms are designed to take advantage of this. Even Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, has admitted, “it’s a social validation feedback loop...exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Thankfully though, not all screen time revolves around likes. If kids are taught to develop and value positive relationships with their screens and others, addictions to technology and social media validation can be curbed. Which leads us to the next lesson…
Lesson #2: It’s About Quality, Not Quantity
Kids will use technology. It’s inevitable. As parents, then, we need to think about how we want children to use screens. When talking about the quality of screen time in his book, Alter cites Zero to Three: “A robust body of research shows that the most important factor in a child’s healthy development is a positive parent-child relationship, characterized by warm, loving interactions in which parents and other caregivers sensitively respond to their child’s cues and provide age-appropriate activities that nurture curiosity and learning.”
Contrary to popular belief, these healthy and loving interactions can happen online. Just think of how technology can be used to connect family members and friends who live far away from each other or the many platforms that now have educational components to them. That’s the sort of screen-time “addiction” we should be trying to foster.
Lesson #3: It’s Not Going Anywhere — and That’s Okay
Technology and social media are changing constantly, and it’s scary to think about what kids interact with online today. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to embrace it. In his book, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, Shapiro presents a refreshing, and in my opinion, more realistic view of technology.
Referring to what journalist Mark Kulansky calls the “technological fallacy” (the belief that tech changes society), Shapiro explains that it’s easy to feel like machines are taking control of our lives and changing how we communicate. In actuality though, it’s the exact opposite. “Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it,” he cites. “Technology is only a facilitator.”
In short, we control technology; it doesn’t control us. If we take time and effort to help kids understand this — and teach them how to use technology in healthy, safe, and meaningful ways — there’s really no need to worry about the latest digital developments.
Lesson #4: It’s Not the First Thing Parents Have Had to Accept
Adults who worry about today’s children being the first to grow up with technology and social media, can learn a thing or two from previous generations: the first to use electricity, the first to drive cars, the first to watch television, the first to use PCs. There’s always been something new or controversial to worry about.
“Could it be that in the same way sandboxes and kindergartens cultivated ‘health’ in the 20th century’s industrial era, digital sandboxes — in which our children already prefer to spend their time — will cultivate a different kind of ‘health’, one that’s better suited to the 21st century’s connected economy? I think so,” Shapiro writes. We need to accept the digital world for what it is: “a primary location in which children receive lessons in living together.”
Lesson #5: It’s Fun!
Building on the last lesson, it’s incredibly important for parents to embrace technology and make it a positive force in their family’s life. I love this sentiment from Shapiro’s book: “Our resistance to digital play is just like Socrates’s resistance to writing. It is futile. Your kids need your help. And it’s easy to provide. Parents, children, and families just need to start playing in the digital world together.”
Monitoring kids’ online activity, choosing content as a family, and having regular conversations may seem like small actions that parents can take — but they have a big impact on how kids learn to use technology for learning and building relationships. Not to mention, families can use screens to connect and have fun with each other.
Navigating technology use as a family requires that we move away from the “all or nothing” mentality; it’s something I’ve learned while conducting research for my upcoming book, Screen Captured. Like Alter and Shapiro suggest, rather than completely removing screen time from the equation, it’s more important for you to find a safe and healthy solution that works for you and your kids — one that teaches them to be responsible digital citizens.
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