For a few months now I've been obsessed with learning all I can about media use and abuse--with understanding the fallout of the nuclear blast that has occurred within our society in the two decades since we all became connected on AL Gore's "information super-highway." I wanted to know what the latest trends are and what the studies show about those trends: the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a parent I want to know how best to deal with the challenges that technology places in the lives of my family members.
What I've learned is alarming. Many studies have been done showing ill effects on the minds and bodies of people with high technology use. Studies have clearly shown that the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to be depressed. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly. Rates of teen suicide have been trending upward since 2007, with adolescent female suicides at a 40 year high. But clearly this is not just a problem for youth. A study in 2011 reported that 15% of divorces are caused by men paying more attention to video games than to their spouse. But that’s nothing: 33% of divorced couples cited Facebook one of the reasons for their split.
The teens and adults just referred to have traded spending time in real-world interactions, which would hopefully be uplifting and positive, for social media vanity and video game violence. Many studies have shown poorer family functioning in households with high media use. Is it the content of the media that’s the problem? Or the absence of the family interactions that would have taken place if the power was out? Likely both.
Media addictions can easily develop now that technology has become so portable and powerful. Eighty percent of teens check their phones at least hourly, and many adults are not far behind. Studies have even shown that smartphones are distracting even when they’re powered off, as our minds wander and wonder if someone has responded to our last text or email or “liked” our status update.
Now, the elephant in the room, when you are talking of technology addictions, is how to prevent them in a world saturated with technology. Do we just say to our children, “Here’s your iPad, be careful,” and give no further guidelines? Would we hand our child cocaine and say, “Here ya go, be careful,”?
An iPad isn’t cocaine, but for some people it’s very much like it. We’ve known for a long time that some groups of people (Native Americans) struggle with alcoholism, and we’ve actually found the gene for that in DNA studies. It now appears that the propensity to addiction goes beyond just alcohol/drugs to behavioral addictions like gambling, eating disorders, and media addictions. There is some strong evidence that about 50% of the propensity to addiction is genetic, and 50% is poor coping skills. I have known families that allow what I’d call excessive amounts of technology use, and families that are extremely strict about screen time, and both groups have had some children who’ve struggled with media addiction and some who have not. Some success and some failure from BOTH types of parenting. Is it Nature or Nurture? It appears, in the worst cases of technology addiction, to be both.
Tough stuff. Not fun to deal with. When I was thinking about writing an article summing up my research, I remembered a time four years ago when we had just received our three now-almost-adopted kids into foster care. They were really wild and did not "respond to voice commands" very well. I was severely outnumbered whenever I went out with a 6, 3, 2, and 1 year old. I could get the 1- and 2-year-olds into the shopping carts with double seats, and the 6 year old would usually stay pretty close. But the 3-year-old was impossible. She wouldn't stay with me and was constantly in danger of getting lost or running into a busy parking lot. So we would stay home. I remember telling them over and over, "When you have learned to stay with Mommy when we go out, we can go out more. But I HAVE to keep you safe--that's the most important thing."
Today we have an epidemic of children "running away from mommy in public places"--escaping from their parents' safeguards into the public places of Snapchat, Instagram, and numerous other amoral playgrounds. The risk of encountering bullying and sexualized content vary with each, and vary with the type of people your child allows to be their friends (followers, etc.). If a parent is strict about which apps are allowed, a child can simply download apps which are hidden underneath other apps--things that look like calculators or calendars. The draw for many kids is powerful enough that there is an increase in defiant or deceptive behavior to access them -- "everybody's doing it." The ironic thing is that it's usually done from their bedrooms--their mattresses have permanent depressions from their bodies where they lay all summer looking at their phones. But they are indeed running--away from the safety of their families into a jungle of fluff and filth.
And danger. Years ago I worked with a nurse in Utah who told me an alarming story. She had noticed that they were getting a lot of phone calls at home in which the caller would immediately hang up (this was in the dinosaur era before caller ID). Sometimes her three-year-old daughter would answer the phone when the parents were busy and begin chatting and they would assume that she was talking to her grandma. But one day she overheard a man's voice on the phone with her daughter, and when she took the phone away from her and asked who it was, he hung up. She asked her daughter who it was and she said it was her special friend, and she talked to him all the time. When questioned she said that he had been asking her to tell him where she lived. Luckily she was just a bit too young to know her address. A year or two later and she'd have gladly related that information to her "special friend."
In the good old days, a predator had to go around the parent to get to the child, and that wasn't very easy because there was usually a parent at home with the kids and there was one phone, connected to the wall, which anyone could answer. But now we are giving phones to our kids--my 10 year old says that most of the kids in her class have their own phones. Even if it doesn't have internet access, there are plenty of ways for predators to acquire your child's phone number and attempt to become his "special friend."
A woman that I know works in law enforcement and specializes in human trafficking, working mostly with children and teens in the public schools here in Northern Virginia. Yes, I said "human trafficking" and "public schools" in the same sentence. She recently told me that there are hundreds of children trafficked for sex every single day in our county school system. While at-risk youth are certainly a target (foster kids are prime victims) many are "regular kids" trafficked after school before their parents come home. Sold to the highest bidder by gang members or punks who threaten their safety or blackmail them--the blackmail usually involves a sexting picture that they've been persuaded/coerced into doing. This friend of mine who specializes in the problem (and helps to get the victims into treatment) says that this ALWAYS starts through their phones as they network at first with friends who may be safe but then soon are out of their depth--wandering technologically through a labyrinth full of Minotaurs. Her recommendation: As little technology as possible. As late as possible.
What to do? How to keep them safe AND help them grow up tech savvy and able to protect themselves? Is there a way for our kids to safely enjoy technology without the risk of harm? Here are some good comments from a couple of Mom forums I am in--coming down on the side of caution:
“Years ago we had a problem with one of our kids being threatened via social media. We only knew about it because we were proactive parents who checked our children’s social media."
“From your comments it seems you are starting to see a problem, and you are wondering where agency fits in. If your child was being unsafe and irresponsible with the car, would you let him drive? A cell phone is not a necessity. He is perfectly capable of growing up without one. Perhaps he is not mature enough to face this temptation right now."
You may want to sign the pledge at Wait Until 8th to support the movement to encourage parents to delay giving a smartphone to a child until at least eighth grade. Also, the Gizmo product line has smart watches/dumb phones that will fulfill basic functions without opening the Pandora's box of unrestricted communications and internet access.
But how do we prepare our kids for the day when they leave home? How will they be able to self-regulate and keep themselves safe if they've not had a lot of practice? A few things I’ve learned from working with my kids’ counselors apply here:
**Be the parent. Know your children and let them know you. Develop, nurture, and maintain the kind of relationship that will create the trust necessary for them to willingly let you into these parts of their lives. And also maintain the expectation that you, as the parent, be able to access their social media and all types of messages at any time. Trust, but verify. Talk with them. Teach them. Set boundaries and enforce consequences when the boundaries are broken.
**Help your child improve his emotional IQ. "Are you feeling uncomfortable? Name your emotion (bored, lonely, angry, anxious, afraid, stressed, hungry, or tired), and name what you want to do to relieve it." “I feel lonely. I think I’ll call my mom.” “I feel hungry. I think I’ll have an apple.” Putting emotions into words will help you process your desires at the level of the thinking brain, rather than the emotional brain.
**Delay gratification You don’t need to stop at a fast food restaurant each time your child has a small twinge of hunger. Remind him of when he recently ate, and when he will eat again. Teach him to “sit with a feeling” which will gradually increase his tolerance of emotional discomfort. A person will become stronger to resist temptations of all sorts if he knows that he has some grit and resiliency.
There is no easy fix to this problem. We are still very naïve in this, the infancy of the digital age, and I hope that we will smarten up before the burden and privilege of technology crushes us and our kids. I am hopeful because people are recognizing the inhumane aspects of unfettered internet usage, and are taking initiatives to slow the spread of the poison. Maybe in ten years we'll be in a better place. But right now I'm on the bandwagon of "better safe than sorry."