If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been put in the frustrating position of competing with your child’s phone for attention – and losing. Intermittent silences, grunts or one-word responses, fast-typing fingers – all telltale signs that he or she has found something more interesting than you. It’s often not even a close contest.
An article in The Atlantic drew attention to the dangers of unlimited smartphone use by teenagers – and smartphones are pervasive, as 80 percent of households now own at least one smartphone, according to Consumer Technology Association research. Since smartphones became ubiquitous about ten years ago, the time our teens spend with friends and on dates has dropped dramatically, while loneliness, lack of sleep and mental health issues have risen sharply.
Most adults are not digital natives. We’re new to the benefits – and challenges – of anytime/anywhere connectivity. Many of us have failed to set effective boundaries and are just as distracted as our children. To be the role models our children deserve, we must create a healthy household culture, including how and when we use technology. Our grandparents did this with pinball games and Pong, and our parents did it with Pac-Man and Minesweeper. We can also set limits.
First, that means insisting that conversations and relationships are a top priority. Practically, this will look different for each family. Some might find it useful to create a tech-free zone in their house or car, where no phones, tablets or laptops are allowed. Instead, play car games or listen to audiobooks. Others might set a limited amount of screen time a day, using parental control apps to set time limits. Whatever rules or boundaries you create, the goal is the same: reconnecting with your kids by temporarily disconnecting from your devices. My wife and I ban all electronics but eBooks in our children’s bedroom and limit our nine year old’s phone usage to an older phone that can only operate using Wi-Fi.
But creating a healthy household tech culture isn’t just about controlling the potentially negative aspects of tech devices. We should find new ways technology can lead our children to healthier, happier lives. Wearables, for instance, partner with devices and allow kids to track their health and physical fitness, and better train for their favorite sports. They’ll know how to monitor their wellness and watch for signs of oncoming illness – and they’ll be able to give doctors more precise information about their symptoms.
Wearables can even help parents of autistic children predict and prepare for episode triggers. Reveal, a wearable designed for kids with autism, closely tracks the signs of mood shifts and lets parents know when their children are on the verge of sensory overload. In the future, this type of device could be used to help kids with anxiety, cerebral palsy and other health issues.
Digital devices can also be used to foster our children’s creativity and expose them to new ideas. It used to be that a small group of big TV networks decided what our kids would watch – but thanks to the internet and tech enabling content creation by all kinds of artists, kids now have a nearly endless array of options. You probably haven’t heard of that band your teen is listening to – but then again, neither has half of his or her friends. And many of these options come from unknown global artists and creators, instead of just the entertainment giants.
Smartphones and tablets let kids connect, create and collaborate. Social platforms allow them to share their work and find likeminded peers who share similar interests. Twenty years ago, if you were the one kid in the neighborhood who liked to make movies, you’d be all alone in your hobby. But thanks to today’s digital devices, you can find other young directors to share ideas and techniques.
And connected tech can help parents keep their children safer. Location apps, for instance, offer parents an unprecedented amount of child supervision. Ceaseless questions like “Where are you going?” and “What are you doing?” disappear when parents can simply check their phones and see where their kids are. We can also track our kids’ digital whereabouts – the sites they visit, the content they watch – through parental control apps and software, preventing kids from inadvertently wandering to unsafe or unsavory corners of the internet.
It’s easy to get worried or frustrated when you try to have a conversation with your child and all you get is a dismissive glance and curt response. But remember: technology is a tool that can be used for good or bad, in excess or in moderation.
Before we start wringing our hands over technology’s influence on the next generation, we need to take a hard look at our own tech habits. One teen in The Atlantic piece said of her own generation, “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” What about the rest of us? Are we using technology creatively and actively, or are we passively and idly letting our technology use us?
With tech, as with all other innovative tools, it’s up to us to figure out how, when and where best to use them – and then show our children how it’s done.