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Baby Monitor: Kids and Technology

Screen time, social media, and your children

By Jeff Balke Illustrations by Chris Danger May 31, 2015

It is difficult enough for adults to manage the constant barrage of technological innovations thrust upon us every day – and that’s when we’re only looking after ourselves. Those of us with children face an even tougher challenge: to protect them from the distractions and dangers modern technology can offer, even as they are constantly drawn to their devices. Said devices, of course, can be wondrous sources of knowledge and discovery when used properly, which is what makes decisions in this arena doubly hard.

We asked Erin Dempsey, a local mom of four children ages 2  to 10, about the challenges technology presents for her family every day. “There are things I would never want my children to see before they are ready,” she said. “There is always the risk of them seeing something way beyond what is appropriate.”

A tech professional herself, Dempsey finds it tough to keep up with the constantly shifting landscape, whether it’s phones and video games or the Internet and social media. One solution is to shut it down entirely. “It’s a difficult area for me to navigate because I know what it can do,” Dempsey explained. “So, my knee-jerk reaction with four kids is to say, ‘Yeah, we’re not doing that.’”

Dr. Martha Mae Sissa, a board-certified general pediatrician with Bootin & Savrick Pediatrics who meets parents in need of guidance all the time, sympathizes. “I feel like we’re inundated with technology,” she said. “It’s daunting.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids under 2 have no screen time at all – screen time refers to all technology, including TV – and older kids use it less than two total hours each day. With an increase in childhood obesity and issues like ADD and ADHD linked to too much time spent staring at a computer monitor or phone, physicians want parents to get their kids active. 

Dr. Sissa knows the challenges presented by such restrictions. “Tell that to some of my parents, and they might get upset,” she said, adding that such a policy might not be practical all the time. Still, “I think it’s a good goal to strive for.” Parents should ask themselves whether technology is being used as an educational tool or a babysitter.  

Some of the perils children might be exposed to online are obvious. “I had a mother in the office just recently,” Dr. Sissa recalled, “who was concerned about her pre-adolescent daughter because she was finding text messages to boys.”

Others might be more insidious. Violent video games are a problem, of course, but at least in Dempsey’s experience, any video game can lead to unhealthy levels of competitiveness. “The social dynamics of siblings and gaming just amplify everything,” Dempsey said. “If they are in a bad mood and want to pick a fight, video games amplify that.”

Then there is social media. From Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat, it seems like new modes of online communication emerge every day. There’s the fear of predators using them to contact kids – reason number one for parents to remain vigilant – as well as the near-inevitability of someone on one of these networks posting something inappropriate, not to mention the prevalence of online bullying. “You have self-esteem issues and depression because kids compare themselves to others,” Dr. Sissa explained. 

All of which contributes to Dempsey’s desire to stave off social media for as long as possible. “I fear for the day I actually have a weak moment and allow them to get on social media,” she said. “I want my kids to be kids. I want them to have a period in their life when there are rainbows and unicorns. And social media chips away at that.” For now, Dempsey’s children are not allowed online during the school week, and they’re limited to less than two hours per day on the weekends (that doesn’t include TV). 

As Dr. Sissa explained, the most important thing a parent can do is simply pay attention. She recommends talking with your children about their online activities. “Have your kids show you what they are looking at,” she said. “Make it family bonding time.” After all, not all technology is bad. It can lead to learning and even careers in computer science and engineering.

Finally, finding alternative ways for your children to spend their time is a must. “Get them outside doing things, hobbies that keep them active,” said Dr. Sissa. Parents can set a good example for their kids by unplugging themselves, particularly at dinner. “Put the phone up, turn the TV off, and ask your kids about their day.” 

Tech Tips

  • Limit screen time to less than two hours per day for children over 2.
  • Find hobbies that involve physical activities away from the computer or phone.
  • Give kids educational alternatives to violent video games.
  • Don’t visit websites you wouldn’t want your kids visiting. They are smart enough to figure out where you’ve been online.
  • Spend time discussing your child’s online activities openly and monitor them closely.
  • Educate yourself on technology and the Internet to better understand the challenges and dangers.
  • Create time for the family to interact without technology.
  • Learn to disconnect yourself as well.
  • Be particularly mindful of online social interactions through texting, gaming, and social media.
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