Fresh Ideas: Not too late to enter a digital-free zone

“Guilty as charged,” I repeatedly murmured to myself. I was reading a two-piece article Jane Broody wrote for the New York Times about kids and electronic use: surprisingly, it’s us parents who come out looking bad.

Let’s start with the scary statistics. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation found typical 8- to 10-year-olds use some form of electronics eight hours per day, older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day. This includes television, computers, tablets, cellphones and video games. A study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found the more time youth spent playing violent video games, the more aggressive they were with peers, and the more they argued with teachers. The Pew Research Center found the average 12- to 17-year old sent and received 60 plus texts a day and the JFK Medical Center found typical teenagers send 34 texts per night after getting into bed. Several of the researchers noted they are currently doing research that shows as electronic use goes up, grades go down, no matter what “level” of student it is.

I did my own research in our home to learn how much time we spent on electronic devices. You can do the same: most devices have a “battery usage” icon that will tell you how much time your computer, cell phone or tablet has been used in the last 24 hours. Set the “stop watch” icon on your cellphone as soon as someone turns on the television, don’t turn it off until the TV is turned off. If you call your service provider it can give you a list of how many texts have been sent and received, and at what time, for each of your phones. You can check what websites people have been going to by checking the “history” on each device. Doing this will give you good information about how much, and what types, of electronics are being used in your home.

It’s shocking how saturated our lives are with all of this, and most of us don’t even notice. But, on the other hand, many of us have learned a ton about the world around us that we wouldn’t be exposed to if it weren’t for the Internet. “Movie days” can be down-right therapeutic. Facebook connects us with family and friends we might not keep up with otherwise. And, not all “gaming” is harmful. The point researchers make is it’s the kind of, and amount of, screen time, that can be hurtful.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of 2 shouldn’t be exposed to any forms of electronic media; before 2 years old, brains are growing so rapidly that even small amounts of exposure can be harmful. Children and teenagers should spend no more than one to two hours per day on electronics (this does not include computers being used for homework).

Much of what children and teenagers do, they learn from watching their parents. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, and two of her colleagues, conducted research in restaurants. They observed 55 families: in 40 of the families at least one adult immediately pulled out a cellphone and used it throughout a majority of the meal. More time was spent on their electronic device than was spent in conversation with their family. Other studies have been done watching parents pushing strollers in parks, and at children’s activities; the results were similar. It can be easy to forget about proper manners with electronics around.

Dr. Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” interviewed more than 1,000 children and teenagers for her book. She quoted one girl who spoke for many, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take a text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.”

What all of these experts emphasize is it isn’t too late to change. Parents need to focus on two things. First, change our own behavior. Second, make clear rules for our children, and then enforce them.

Start by talking with your kids about why you are making the changes. They won’t like it, and they will fight you. But, if they see you doing it, and you enforce the rules, they will fall in line.

School aged children and teenagers need their parents’ attention the most before and after school. This is a time of day where pressures about school work and friendships abound. Experts suggest no electronics, for parents or kids, one hour before and after school; focus instead on talking about the school day and how things are going with friends. All meals should be “electronics free.” Televisions, tablets and cellphones all have settings that can block use certain times of the day; if you’re having problems with your kids (or yourself) following your family’s electronics rules, use these settings. Most devises also have “parent settings” so you can select which sites and games they can go to, and which they can’t. Only allow electronics to be used in the kitchen and living rooms where you can see what they’re doing, not in bedrooms.

Researchers who study lifestyle changes over time have found that with every year we spend more time on electronics, and as the size of our houses grow, so does our loneliness. We’re often called “the lonely generation,” by these researchers. So, it’s time to figure out ways to help ourselves and our families adjust to the new realities of 21st century living in a way that makes sense and is balanced.

If you’re finding it hard to make these changes motivate yourself with this quote by Johann Hari, addiction researcher, about this increasing sense of disconnection in our culture, “If you have a crisis in your life you will notice that it won’t be your Twitter followers that come to sit with you, it won’t be your Facebook friends who help you turn it around, it will be your flesh and blood friends, who you have face to face relationships with, that will show up.”

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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