Over the last two decades, our society has been transformed by technology, especially high-tech tablets and smart phones. Technology touches our lives in so many ways that the children of today are surrounded by it at every turn. It is not uncommon for today’s elementary-aged children to have their own personal tablet, smart phone, or wrist watch that communicates with parents. Toddlers can often navigate a tablet with ease. Even new kitchen appliances are incorporating smart communication technology into their design. The challenge facing our society is how to best navigate this high-tech culture in a healthy manner. How can we balance our use of technology in order to avoid falling into negative patterns of too much screen time?
A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
Through the ParentEd. education series this past spring, Mount Paran Christian School tackled this tough issue by hosting a viewing of the film Screenagers. The documentary, created by physician Delany Ruston, explores the hold that our devices have over us — and our children. The goal of the film is to bring educators and parents together to begin a nationwide conversation about how screen time impacts our lives and what we can do about it. Among the findings, viewers learned that, on average, young people spend 6.5 hours a day looking at screens. "There's a risk of real addiction to these devices, resulting in serious negative consequences at any age," Dr. Ruston said. And, it's not just kids who are at risk: "Eight to 14 percent of the adult population has clinical Internet addiction."
Part of the allure of increased screen-time can be blamed on biology. The chemical dopamine, which lights up our brain’s pleasure response, is stimulated with every text message “ping”, every new e-mail notification, every video game level successfully completed. This constant, pleasurable stimulus to our brains is what makes it so challenging for us to look up from a smartphone, whether it be crossing the street, driving in traffic, or meeting with others face-to-face.
TAKE BACK CONTROL
It is easier said than done to simply turn off technology, according to Dr. Ruston, who undertook making the documentary when she realized her two teenagers were eternally texting, posting, and gaming. She offers some suggestions for taking back control over technology:
Identify the problem: The film's website offers a self-assessment that can help identify the scope of a video gaming problem. The site also offers recommended reading and resources.
Quantify and control: Though ironic, there are several apps that will help quantify how much time you spend staring at a screen. Apple has added a “screen time” setting that allows the user to receive weekly usage reports and set limits. Just becoming aware of the time spent on your devices can be enough to spark change. There are also apps that give parents control over how much screen time is allowed, including Moment, Checky, and Our Pact. Even at MPCS, a personal technology device for high schoolers is allowed, but within limits, as found in the handbook.
Make change fun: Sometimes an incentive or competition helps motivate children, so consider making a game of it. One creative MPCS parent sent her children on a scavenger hunt, having them complete their chores with notes indicating they were one step closer toward the reward of using a device. Perhaps allow your children to earn an allowance bonus or special treat for adhering to the time limits you set. Couples can leave their smart phones locked in their car glovebox and splurge on a nice dinner out. One favorite is to put all mobile devices into a bowl when friends and family are dining together.
Like it or not, technology is here to stay. While there is no going back to the pre-iPhone days, we can certainly make the decision to navigate this high-tech culture in ways that will optimize healthy lifestyles and make the most of our limited family time.
Dana Gray and Kathleen Pratt are Lower School Counselors at Mount Paran Christian School.