Technology is a tool; it’s not the enemy. But it’s also not the answer for parents raising children in the digital age.
Recognizing the growing presence of screens and the increasing exposure to screen time for young students, the Shawnee Mission Area Council Parent Teachers Association hosted a panel discussion for parents and families to receive tips on best practices.
Guest speakers included Natasha Burgert, a local pediatrician, Susan Dunaway, a neurotherapist and Det. Chris Moore, a child exploitation task force officer with the Overland Park Police Department.
Moore provided tips on legal issues and prevention/safety methods for children’s use of technology.
Dunaway explained how a child’s brain develops, adding that children require sleep and “lots of time in the real world” for it to develop properly.
The prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to develop, Dunaway said. Children are learning executive skills such as focused attention, motivation, anticipating consequences, planning and organizing, time management and good decision-making.
Additionally, the social part of a child’s brain needs attention so s/he can learn a sense of self and a foundation of empathy, Dunaway added. This is developed through lots of eye contact and micro-interactions. And, most importantly, it gives the child a chance to be bored; it also gives the brain a chance to realize that the world doesn’t move as quickly as on screen.
“Bored is great; bored is brilliant,” Dunaway said. “Boredom is necessary, but sometimes we get in this idea as parents that we need to entertain our kids. We condition the brain to be overstimulated.”
The physical effects of screen time can be detrimental to a child’s physical health as well. Children average seven to nine hours a day looking at a screen and only four to seven minutes a day playing outside. Dunaway said this puts children at risk of developing myopia (nearsightedness) and simply being too inactive.
Regardless of content, all screens overstimulate a child’s central nervous system, leading to emotional behaviors such as anger, irritation, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and trouble focusing. And social media use compounds the issue, Dunaway said, citing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidal thoughts in children who use social media.
Dunaway recommended additional reading such as “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr as well as “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.
Burgert emphasized the importance of boundaries for children, especially in technology and media use. She asked parents to take a photo of at least one of her slides, which read:
“Boundaries are discipline. Boundaries train the brain to remove distraction and focus on tasks that matter. Boundaries are the foundation for internal motivation, self-driven success, and self-control. Respecting boundaries translates into self-protective skills necessary for adult living. Children cannot do this on their own.”
Burgert provided parents with three main takeaways:
- “Just because it’s mobile does not mean it has to be mobile.” For example, parents could limit access to screens by leaving devices at home when they’re running errands with children.
- “No tech at the table.” Burgert said this creates a safe atmosphere for children around mealtimes and also makes it easier to bond with the rest of the family.
- “No tech in the bedroom or bathroom.” This helps reduces screen time for children to help with regular bedtime. And keeping devices out of the bathroom decreases temptation of inappropriate use of technology. It also helps to remove risks that could place a child’s exposure to pornography.
These three boundaries are teaching children that it’s OK to be without a screen, Burgert said.
“They have the ability to entertain themselves; they can have a meal with someone else without distraction and actually enjoy their company; that they’re going to be able to sleep without dings of distraction; that the sky will not fall if they don’t answer a text right away,” Burgert said. “These boundaries are demonstrating over and over again that life will go on and they will be OK without that device in their hand.
“These boundaries train your child to use a device but not have the device use them.”