Like many lately, my friend Alice’s son is addicted to Fortnite, the video game of the moment. Unsure of what to do, Alice offered her 12-year-old several hundred dollars to abandon Fortnite for a month. He refused without hesitation. So a few weeks later, when I asked a young man in his 20s to explain the sensation to me, he instantly likened Fortnite to “crack.”
For many parents, who might already have to nag their children to put down their phones or log off social media to do homework, this kind of tech dependence—where parents must pry their seemingly bewitched children away—is at a new level of alarming.
In a The Wall Street Journal article about Fortnite, calling it an “unwinnable war,” Betsy Morris wrote: “The last-man-standing video game has grabbed onto American boyhood, pushing aside other pastimes and hobbies and transforming family dynamics.” Even for parents who concede that technology can be powerful learning tools for children, the family conflicts arising from the Fortnite phenomenon or incessant texting are frustrating reminders of what technology has become for users of all ages: a mind-numbing distraction and time suck. Is it possible for families to achieve balance—between raising their children to be savvy and tech literate, but not face developmental harm?
Mountains of research reveal all the ways technology influences children’s and teens’ language skills, their brain development, their social interactions, their sleep and more. Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of teens feel “addicted” to their phones. The Pew Research Center discovered that 59 percent of US teens have been bullied or harassed online. Negative reports make it tricky for parents to find a happy medium and accept technology as beneficial especially when trying to protect their children or simply get their attention.
A Look on the Bright Side
As parents, we are so worried about our children’s addiction to their devices and the negative effects of technology that we overlook the positives. A study in American Psychologist, “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” concludes that the skills learned while playing video games translate into positive social behavior with friends and family members.
The Family Institute at Northwestern University also shines a brighter light. In a review of numerous findings on digital effects, it found encouraging news for parents: “Several studies have suggested that digital forms of communication do not dictate the quality of interaction and relationships [for children and teenagers]. Rather, the quality of the pre-established relationships often determines what effect using digital forms communication will have.”
In other words, “for children and teenagers who already have well-developed social skills, using digital media to interact does not harm their relationships or social development. In contrast, if a child or teenager does not have strong social skills or an in-person social network, that child or teenager should be encouraged to continue exploring ways to build these skills and to balance time towards that goal with their screen time.”
Be it developing social skills, fine tuning time management, or simply learning to use technology wisely, parents have an important role.
Tech is ubiquitous and a teaching tool used increasingly in schools and for homework assignments. Similarly, texting, Facebook, Instagram and the like are not going away. In spite of excessive hours spent on technology, parents can teach children and teens to strive for balance, to harness technology so they are not harmed by it.
An important caveat: Beginning at very young ages, taking devices away or using screen time as a reward is likely to increase time spent on screens by 20 minutes a day for children age 5 and younger, according to a study in BMC Obesity. The same probably holds true for older children and teens.
Approached with acceptance and understanding, parents can encourage children to be sensible technology “users” in all its forms. Diana Graber, the founder of CyberWise and an International Digital Literacy Advocate, has an approach that will help parents relax. Although technology is relatively new to many parents, kids, on the other hand, have grown up with it, but Graber is confident that we can help our children “build a healthy relationship with technology.”
In her book, Raising Humans in a Digital World, she explains the role parents play to assure kids have the skills they need to act responsibly. Parents can guide their children to think critically about how they use technology and what they put out in the world.
13 Parent Assists to Help Children Become Tech Savvy
Graber makes these useful suggestions to help build social skills:
- Teach children and teens to look people in the eye when talking to them.
- Have consistent, unplugged family time.
- Set up an email account for younger children and practice writing emails with subject lines, greetings and sign offs.
- Engage in kindness online with them: review a book or rate a restaurant you liked; “like” someone’s photo or Facebook post.
Early on, be sure you and your children understand the scope of media and how information can spread far more widely than intended. Graber believes it’s vital for both parents and children to know the meanings of:
- Social media site
An essential lesson to get across is the importance of the digital footprint a child may be leaving online that will affect her in the future. Graber recommends these reputation-saving lessons:
- Drive home the fact that what they put online is very difficult to erase.
- Be sure they understand who will look at their social media in the future: college admissions personnel; potential employers; prospective dates.
- Guard your present and future digital reputation by being selective in what you share.
- Share community service, involvement in a cause, commitment to a project or idea you created.
Given the many potholes to avoid, with a small time investment parents can turn their children into savvy digital users. While the jury is still out and studies on many aspects of kids and technology often produce conflicting results on privacy, time spent on devices, games and computers, no one can disagree: technology puts knowledge at everyone’s fingertips. Following Diana Graber’s lead goes a long way in calming parents’ many worries.
Copyright @2019 by Susan Newman