At 20 months old, my son is a total jibber-jabberer, but, by my estimation, I can clearly understand about a quarter of the things he is saying. One of those words that he says perfectly: iPad.
To say that my son has a fascination with the iPad, is like saying CNN minimally covered the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370. (Read: he’s obsessed.) He already has his favorite apps—Peekaboo Barn and Monkey Preschool Lunchbox—and he has the swiping down pat. If he spies it on the table, he’ll grab it and throw it at me, chanting, “iPad, iPad, iPad,” until I turn it on and let him play with it.
Technology is a love-hate thing for parents. On the one hand, small children can be happily occupied on planes and in doctor’s offices with mobile devices, and teens can be better tracked reached on a night out or after school thanks to cell phones.
On the other hand, parents today need to worry about the negative effects of too much screen time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids who are too tuned in are at risk for higher obesity rates, poor sleep, increased behavioral problems, and poor academic performance.
Add to that issues like cyber-bullying and sexting—it’s enough to make a parent wish for an Amish lifestyle.
So how plugged in are today’s kids? A 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed just how significant kids’ technology use is:
-Children ages 8-18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media. That equates to 53 hours a week.
-When you factor in the use of multiple devices during that time (e.g. texting while surfing the net on your computer), it actually increases the number to 10 hours and 45 minutes.
“The bottom line is that all these advances in media technologies are making it even easier for young people to spend more and more time with media,” Victoria Rideout, foundation vice president and director of the study, wrote in the study release. “It’s more important than ever that researchers, policymakers and parents stay on top of the impact it’s having on their lives.”
Some experts are even arguing that parents have begun using technology has a crutch for handling kids. “I call it the iPhone syndrome,” says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Raising Generation Tech. “Is it high-tech child abuse? Kids are given a tablet when they get cranky, when they become disruptive. I think this a bad precedent. It’s medicating kids with technology instead of drugs. In moderation there won’t be any harm. The danger comes in when it becomes the default response. When they get bored and they immediately reach for an iPhone. When their friends come over they play video games. When it becomes the rule instead of the exception.”
So what’s a parent to do?
First, take honest stock of the tech usage in your home—and that includes your own screen time. (The “I learned it by watching you” message also applies to technology). “Parents are maybe more guilty than their kids,” Taylor says. “You see on the playground where parents are on their phones. Mindfulness should be a family value.”
What does Taylor mean by mindfulness? “That means being focused on what you’re doing at the moment,” he says. “When you’re working on your homework, this is all you do.” Teaching children to be mindful in their tech usage sets them up for a healthier relationship with their devices as the develop.
Also try to establish time during the week when no one is connected, say, dinnertime. “I’ve been at restaurants and seen a family of four when everyone is on their phones,” Taylor says. You can also participate in scree-free weeks, like the one promoted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
When they are plugged in, monitor the media content. For younger kids, that means paying attention the apps they play, the You Tube videos they watch or movies they stream on Netflix. For older ones, that could mean “friending” them on Facebook or following them on Twitter.
Finally, set boundaries. The Kaiser study found that fewer than half of the respondents had rules about which shows they could watch (46 percent), video games they could play (30 percent) and music they could listen too (26 percent). Half (52 percent) said they had rules about what they could do on the computer.
And limit how long they can spend in front of a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before the age of 2 (oops!) and limited older children to one to 2 hours a day.
Still, you don’t have to go completely dark to make a difference. “The reality is, parents are not going to get off the grid,” Taylor acknowledges. “It turns people off. I want to encourage parents to be deliberate about what’s best for their kids.”