I own a lot of things with screens—maybe too many. In addition to my work computer and laptop, I also have a TV at my office, in the bedroom, and in the bathroom as I need to watch the news while brushing my teeth. And, I own an iPhone, as well as multiple iPads. In fact, as I look around the house, it is safe to say that my old iPads never really die, they just get recycled into expensive room clocks and personal gaming devices.
Owning multiple devices is the new norm. My kids, like their friends, have several hand-held accessories, a variety of gaming consoles, a DVR to watch their favorite TV shows and a couple of old laptops. My wife, the most streamlined of us, still owns a smart phone, iPad and laptop. Despite these easily available distractions, the family does a good job managing tech use. We have many outside interests, including sports, performing arts and reading (on a Kindle, of course), but it would be difficult to survive without easy access to our devices.
The influence technology has on our brains, relationships, sleeping patterns and moods is a prevalent topic in mental health research. While there is no definitive answer that tells us exactly how technology impacts our children, professionals know that overuse negatively affects attention, sleep and development. Furthermore, doctors are seeing electronically addicted teens who are suffering from screen withdrawal and are forgoing other fun activities in favor of staying connected.
These same problems also impact adults who have the additional stress of business connectivity issues. With fierce competition in the workplace, many fear their success opportunities will be compromised if they don’t respond during all hours of the day and night. This work theory, however, may actually make one less useful as the brain needs time to recharge in order to operate at maximum efficiency. Additionally, multitasking tech demands with face-to-face interactions leads one to become more impulsive and more likely to take risks. In some ways, technology hurts as much as it helps.
Most adults and children would benefit from learning how to better manage their tech use, and summertime is the perfect time to start a digital diet. Consider planning a vacation with firm tech boundaries that limit electronic use. Don’t, however, make the detox decision without consulting the family and realize that going cold turkey is probably unrealistic. Accept that you will need to make some compromises, especially if teenagers are part of your crew. With a little advance planning, however, it should be easy to get everyone to agree to unplug, especially if you plan something fun or adventurous.
Once home or if you are not traveling, summer is still an excellent time to rethink your digital attitude. How you approach your children about computer use depends on their age. Younger kids are easy to distract, so influence their tech time by offering something different to do. Most kids younger than 8 are happy to engage in a creative endeavor if a parent or sibling will participate. Creating other interests and free time expectations is the best way to manage future overuse.
If your kids are older, parents still can influence without arguing, but some ground rules need to be established. No technology or TV during mealtimes, specific unplugged hours, and power off curfews are responsible requests. Additionally, I encourage families to reinforce that media use is a privilege and not a right--kids should earn their access. Once chores are completed, homework is finished and the piano is practiced, screen time is a great way to decompress. If family expectations are reasonable, kids not only will accept new rules, but may actually appreciate parentally imposed household structure.
OK, we all know that when we plug in, we also tune out. Your new media plan, however, does not require you to sledgehammer the computer; rather, it means embracing organization and time management. Your kids may accuse you of being out of touch with technological times, but they will do so while looking you in the eye and not while they texting their friends.
Prior to going into private practice as psychotherapist and learning disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.