We have become a nation of phone zombies. Everywhere I go, people are looking at their phones – on street corners, park benches, in line at the grocery store, waiting for the subway, even while out to dinner with other people. Do you reach, groggily, for your phone before you do anything else in the morning?
You’re not alone.
According to the latest Pew research, 95 percent of Americans own some kind of cell phone. And 77 percent of us have a smart phone (up from just 35 percent in 2011). If you are between the ages of 30 and 49, there’s close to a 90 percent chance that you a smartphone.
We are so mindlessly connected to our devices -- constantly checking email, texts, social media -- that it’s hurting our ability to be present for anything. Surely you’ve seen the reports that show cell phone addiction can alter the way your brain functions.
From the parent’s perspective, it’s understandable. Parents are so overloaded that they feel the need to fill every micro-moment with another task, another phone call, another connection.
And let’s be honest. Being a parent has many joyful moments. But parts of it are also boring and the temptation to just take a quick look at Twitter or Instagram can be hard to resist. Those quick hits of social media can also make us feel less isolated. But think about it from the perspective of your child: when a parent is on a device, the child makes assumptions about where he falls in the pecking order.
So, how do we use all the wonderful gadgets and devices at our fingertips to help us, not distract us?
How do we ensure that our children don’t become addicted to technology? (If they see you cradling your phone 24-7, is it any wonder why it’s a problem?)
Just like table manners and four-letter-words, kids imitate what their parents do. If you want your kids to have a healthy relationship with technology, you must model it yourself. Here’s how:
Create household technology rules that promote intentional use.
Consider establishing a new household norm that encourages all family members to park their phones in a special landing dock. It could even be a big, beautiful box placed in a prominent location near your entryway. During designated times, everyone can retrieve their phones from the docking station. The physical separation will be hard at first – but persist! It can make it easy for everyone be present and more conscious about their use of technology.
Make conscious choices about what you use technology for and when.
Maybe because you work on a screen all day, you read paper books at night. Maybe while playing a board game, if one of the players has a question, the rule in your house is “don’t Google it.” Instead, stay connected to the people at the table, relying on memory alone. On vacation, pull out an old school map or ask for directions (instead of relying on apps like Waze) -- it’s amazing what you’ll notice when your head isn’t buried in your screen.
Set rules on screen time and stick to them.
Be bold and stand tall in decisions about when and for what purpose your kids can use devices such as iPads and cell phones. It’s a slippery slope, because today’s devices can be used for homework, social media, and entertainment. It’s not as if technology is ‘bad’ – but you know better the dangers of digital addiction than your kids. Don’t throw your hands up in surrender.
Expect push back.
Technology is physiologically addictive, so don’t be surprised when your kids balk or throw tantrums when you say time’s up. Think of it like cotton candy. No matter how much they scream for more, at a certain point you just say no because you, the adult, know it’s not good for them.
Plan a three-day technology detox for the whole family.
Lots of families -- I might even argue most families -- have a less than healthy relationship to technology. So, invest in a reset. During this three-day detox, plan activities that involve a full-body experience: go for a hike, have a catch, play board games, make pasta from scratch, rediscover your love of crafts. It will be difficult. You may feel anxious. You will definitely want to check your phone, just for a second. Tolerate the discomfort. Soon enough, your brain – and your family’s brains – will find a different gear where you don’t need the technology hit.
Media mentorship begins at birth, and www.zerotothree.org offers a very practical and insightful suite of tools called Screen Sense, which recommends ways to manage screen time for young children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is also an outstanding resource that continuously monitors the research on the impact of screen time and puts out guidelines for appropriate media use at different ages. Their recommendations are based on brain development and social emotional needs. You can also check out their wonderful online tool to help families create their own media use plans.
Yes, you can be a digital media mentor for your child. You may even benefit in the process.
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