Screen Wise: Using Technology in Developmentally Appropriate Ways

Our digital companions go everywhere with us. The attractive, colorful screens on our smartphones, laptops and tablets allow us to keep in touch, access information, fight boredom, navigate our way, express ourselves, and share the minute details of our lives. Technology has changed the way we work, learn and communicate. This is very obvious to parents when we observe our children and how they spend their time. Even young parents who have grown up in the Information Age are often startled by our rapidly changing technological world.

Today in the U.S., almost all children have used a handheld electronic device by the time they are only 1 year old. Most 2-year-olds use mobile technology every day, and 90 percent of teens own or have access to a smartphone.

Recognizing the ubiquity of screens in our lives, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated their guidelines regarding children’s exposure to screens and media. Rather than setting hard-and-fast limitations on screen use, the AAP now encourages parents to incorporate screens in developmentally appropriate ways. They suggest developing a Family Media Use Plan based on your family’s practices and values. You can create and customize your own plan with their interactive website tool at http://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx.

Toddlers

Children under the age of 2 use all of their senses to learn about their world. Because face-to-face interaction and hands-on activities are most important at this stage, experts say screen time does not provide many benefits. Video chatting via Skype or Facetime is the one exception and can help young children stay connected to traveling parents and distant relatives.

Preschoolers

Between the ages of 3 and 5 screen time is most appropriate when parents engage along with the child. This could mean reading e-books together, or playing simple computer games in tandem. According to Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Lisa Jellison in Redding, it’s important to choose slower-paced, age-appropriate programming at this stage. “Children under age 5 shouldn’t have access to lots of fast-paced content where many things on the screen change really rapidly,” Jellison says. “This can actually cause changes in the brain’s frontal lobe and may contribute to the development of symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Elementary School Students

As children enter elementary school the use of technology becomes an integral piece of the educational milieu. Margaret Johnson is co-founder and executive director of Redding School of the Arts, a charter school serving grades K-8. “Technology certainly has a place in the educational environment,” Johnson says. “It’s important to help students know when to use it, how to use it safely, and use it appropriately – within the context of educational objectives.”

As students spend more time with media on screens, Johnson says she’s noticed less fluency in face-to-face interactions and a lack of experience with turn-taking. “With the old board games, kids learned to wait through the cycle of play for their turn,” says Johnson. “But with the new video games kids are each battling on their own device at the same time and they don’t have to wait.” For this reason, she says she and her teachers have developed activities that help younger students build conversational and turn-taking skills.

Most school administrators put limits on the use of personal handheld devices at school, but such limits vary widely. Johnson says, “Redding School of the Arts’ policy is that devices should be turned off and stored during school hours. This is not only to support the learning environment, but to protect student property and confidentiality.”

High School Students

Jerry Crosby is principal at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a public charter high school in Chico. Having been an educator for over 30 years, she’s seen many changes in the methods and materials schools use, and contends that most of the advances in technology bring educational benefits. “We have a fairly tech-savvy staff,” says Crosby. “Devices are actually encouraged in many classrooms.” Teachers at Inspire use Google Docs and other apps that allow students to work collaboratively. Students are encouraged to come up with new ways of sharing ideas. “We have students who are working on solar suitcases to be sent to villages in Kenya – and we want even more connectivity with the world,” says Crosby.

“Even with a fairly inclusive view of phone and device usage, we have to confiscate one or two a day, but it is usually from the same students,” admits Crosby.

Awareness of Health and Posture

As a certified occupational therapy assistant, Kim Ward acknowledges the benefits of screen technology. “There are programs that address problem-solving, reaction time, and fine motor skills,” she says. “Therapists have used video games to address coordination and balance.” But Ward does have concerns about the effects of handheld technology on her 14-year-old son.

“James suffers from poor posture, headaches, and seems to be compromised when playing sports, stating he’s short of breath,” says Ward. She explains these are symptoms of “text neck,” a condition resulting from repeated downward focus on a smartphone or other handheld device. Other physical impacts include sleep disruption when kids use devices late into the night, and a propensity toward weight gain in kids who become more sedentary with increased screen time.

It is important to be aware of other signs of device overuse or obsession. Watch for things like difficulty sleeping, schoolwork suffering, anxiety or fears of “missing out,” and any kind of bullying, secrecy or withdrawn behavior. If you have any concerns, ask your pediatrician, school counselor or family therapist for help.

Socializing

Though many parents have fears about the effects of media and new technology on their children’s social and cognitive development, new research suggests such fears may be overblown. In most cases, what happens in the digital world simply mirrors what happens offline. That is, children who have strong family and peer relationships offline also tend to have strong connections online. Shy kids who engage in social activities online can strengthen relational skills and expand their peer group. However, loners who gravitate toward non-social activities online are more at risk for social disconnection and depression.

Jellison says that when kids develop a propensity for playing video games to the exclusion of other activities, there’s usually an underlying cause. “I mostly see this behavior in kids with ADHD,” she says. “The fixation on gaming usually starts around age 8. If parents don’t set limits, the behavior can spiral out of control by the teen years.”

Parental Communication

Crosby says there’s definitely a need for adult guidance. She acknowledges that cyberbullying is an issue because students say things online that they would never say in person. “In addition,” she says, “students lack a filter in determining what is healthy and safe to share. Everything from provocative photos to suicide pacts can come through cyberspace. When such issues arise I always remind families that most of these phones belong to the parents – and parents should check them often.”

Crosby also recommends that computers and phones be powered up in family rooms rather than bedrooms and that there be a “curfew” on electronics before bedtime. “Parents have every right to limit the use of technology for their children,” she says, “And parents can make it clear to students that there is no right to privacy as a minor.”

Many parents are overwhelmed at the thought of monitoring their child’s online life. Research suggests that 70 percent of teens use multiple social media sites. Jellison says, “A lot of parents are not familiar with the variety of social media their kids are using, and that worries them.” She advises parents to have all their children’s passwords and to check their accounts frequently. “I also advise them to install these applications on their own devices and become friends with their child. This allows parents to monitor and teach appropriate use.”

Parents should find quiet moments to ask questions about friends, both on and offline, to talk about the things that might be troubling or wonderful in a child’s relationships, and have conversations about appropriate online etiquette. Role playing can help a child problem-solve options in difficult social situations. Use media stories to start a conversation that could open up lines of communication for more personal disclosure about what is happening in your child’s life.

Good communication is the real key between parent and child. Devorah Heitner explains in her book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, that parents have more influence when they engage in mentoring their children, rather than in strict monitoring alone. Heitner encourages parents to approach children with optimism, a tech-positive outlook, curiosity and understanding.

“I prefer to think of technology and kids’ screen time as an adaptation rather than a deficit. Yes, kids today communicate by texting, and they don’t have as much to say to each other face-to-face. But this is their world now, and they’ve adapted to it. In years to come, they’ll be the adults in charge, and this is how they’ll conduct interviews and correspondence. This is their social norm,” Jellison reminds us.

The importance of being a good role model can’t be overemphasized. Our children can be mirrors of us, so be the person you want your children to be. 

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Take a Tech Break

The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that digital media should not take the place of other important life activities. Encourage kids to:

  • Get at least one hour per day of vigorous exercise.
  • Get a good night’s sleep – no phones or devices in the bedroom.
  • Spend face-to-face time with family.
  • Spend quiet media-free down time to dream, create or reflect.

Take a tech break when these physical signs appear:

  • Irritated eyes or blurry vision
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Stiff neck, shoulder or back

Websites for more information:

Recommended reading:

  • Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane.
  • Screen-Smart Parenting: How to Find Balance and Benefit in Your Child’s Use of Social Media, Apps, and Digital Devices by Jodi Gold.
  • Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner.

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Ashley Talmadge
About Ashley Talmadge

​Ashley Talmadge has always shared her home with a variety of companion animals. Currently her family includes two opinionated cats and two aquatic frogs. Her two young sons like to think of themselves as "cat mind readers."

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