The holiday season is almost here, and in many households that means festively-wrapped packages full of brand new phones, tablets, and other media devices. The holidays also brings school breaks, and with them an abundance of free time that kids – and parents – are sure to fill by spending lots of time playing with their new tech toys. Digital devices are an integral part of our daily lives and technology has many amazing benefits. It allows children to keep in regular contact with faraway friends and family members, offers kids with disabilities methods of communication and social connection that they would not otherwise have, and gives students access to unparalleled amounts of information at their fingertips. However, an American Academy of Pediatrics study published just a few weeks ago highlighted the risks of allowing kids too much access to technology. The following are some of the hazards the study identified:
- Beginning in early childhood, excessive media use (typically defined as more than two hours of use per day) is linked to a risk of obesity and cardiovascular problems.
- Media use results in fewer minutes of sleep per night and increased sleep disturbances. For example, late-night media use and higher numbers of devices in the bedroom are tied to poorer sleep quality in teens and preteens.
- Certain types of media may reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes, negatively impacting girls and children of color.
- Cyberbullying can be particularly difficult to escape since the bullying can occur even when children are in their own homes and can result in academic problems, negative social consequences, and increased risk of suicidal ideation.
- Online activity exposes children to exploitation posed by sex offended and child traffickers, and parents underestimate the risk of their child engaging in online conversation with strangers.
Balancing the pros and cons of media usage is a constant parenting challenge. One solution is to develop a Family Media Use Plan, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and discussed in this weekend’s New York Times article, When Tech is a Problem Child. A Family Media Use Plan is list of rules that you and your children can develop together that clarifies when, where, and how your family can (and cannot) use technology devices, and includes measures to ensure that media is used safely. Your Family Media Use Plan should take into account your family’s specific needs – if your child has a real talent for coding, you may need a different plan than a family in which most technology time is spent on social media. A great starting point is to make use of HealthyChildren.org’s Family Media Use Tool, which breaks the plan into the following areas: 1) “Screen Free Zones”: Where can you use devices in your home? Where are they not allowed? Will devices be allowed in bedrooms overnight? 2) “Screen Free Times”: Can devices be used during meals or while doing homework? Can your children bring their devices to school? Can you use your phone while driving? 3) “Device Curfews”: What time must devices be turned off at night? In which room will devices be charged overnight? 4) “Choose & Diversify Your Media”: What types of media will your family use? How much of permitted media time will be spent on educational media versus social media versus game-play? How much time will be spent using media together versus solo media time? 5) “Balancing Online & Offline Time”: What non-screen time activities will your family enjoy together? What other hobbies can your child pursue? 6) “Manners Matter”: What etiquette rules will apply to media use in your family? Can you answer a text while in a conversation with someone else? Can devices be on the table during dinner? 7) “Digital Citizenship”: How will your family respond to online bullying? How can you respect the privacy of others online? 8) “Safety First”: What types of information are safe to share online? For which types of online activities will your child need your permission or supervision? What should your child do if they receive messages that make them uncomfortable? 9) “Sleep & Exercise”: How will your family members ensure that they get enough sleep? How can each of your family members make sure they engage in one hour of physical activity every day? Before the New Year arrives, resolve to sit down with your family and develop a Family Media Use Plan that will allow your family to enjoy the positive aspects of technology without experiencing the negative consequences of overuse. Remember that the best way to get your children to stick to your family’s plan is to model healthy technology behaviors for them, and that this plan also applies to you. This holiday season encourage your family to take a break from digital devices and have some real-world fun together – and then enjoy posting holiday photos on Facebook guilt-free! Danielle Rothman, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Insight Into Action Therapy, where she provides therapy and psychological testing. She can be contacted at (703) 646-7664 ext. 11.