Raising Kids in a Tech World: 5 Ways to Encourage Healthy Media Use
Ever wonder what it was like to raise kids 30 years ago?
You had a landline phone that rang a few times a day and a single TV, situated in the living room and turned on occasionally. The iPads, Nintendo switch, smartphones, and laptops? They didn’t exist. Your kids’ idea of entertainment was a game of tag outside with friends. If they were stuck indoors they might watch a few cartoons, but they were more apt to create games out of empty boxes and old-fashioned toys.
You fed your baby, read with your toddler, and helped your eight-year-old with his homework without your phone buzzing, Paw Patrol humming in the background, and “Mom, can you unlock the iPad?” ringing in your ears for the fifteenth time.
It’s true that technology makes our lives more efficient and provides information and experiences at our fingertips. Technology also creates plenty of challenges—especially when it comes to our children.
Every parent, caregiver, and teacher is asking themselves the same question: how do we raise kids to use technology to their benefit and not their detriment?
Technology for kids is like candy. Some parents hide it and make “no candy until after dinner” or “only one piece” rules. Other parents don’t set restrictions—the candy drawer is just as fair game as the milk in the fridge. Most parents find themselves somewhere in the middle, unsure whether restriction or a no-holds-barred approach will help keep kids healthy or have the opposite effect.
Sure, candy is fun and delicious, but we all know that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing.
So how do we find an appropriate middle ground? And why should we even try? Let’s look at some of the challenges of technology, specifically for our kids. Then, let’s talk about how we can manage them and raise emotionally intelligent kids in the process.
The Challenges of Tech
Research has shown a strong correlation between excessive media exposure and delayed development. Parents may think that educational apps, shows, and videos will help their kids pick up new words or learn important social skills. Rather, they’ve been shown to negatively impact cognitive abilities such as memory, development of math and reading skills, and language development.
It turns out that kids don’t learn as much from digital media as we think.
Digital media is a tool, an asset to educating our little ones, but it’s not our primary source. So how do children learn best? By interacting with their caregivers.
Studies show that kids struggle to transfer new knowledge from technology to real life.
Some researchers explained it this way: “Early learning is easier, more enriching and developmentally more efficient when experienced live, interactively, in real time and space, and with real people.” You don’t need to eliminate technology entirely, but make real experiences the priority.
Executive Function is the skillset that includes adaptive thinking, memory, and self-control. It’s basically what we rely on to be able to process and regulate our emotions and make rational decisions. These skills begin to develop in early childhood and into adolescence, so extra attention to executive function by teachers and caregivers is always recommended.
Unfortunately, over-exposure to media has been found to negatively affect executive functions in children, which have even been shown to carry over into adulthood.
Like other learning, developing these skills happens best in face-to-face interactions and hands-on play. Conversely, the overuse of technology can have an adverse effect. The most concerning impact of media overuse? Problems with emotional regulation.
Several studies have found a correlation between regulatory problems in children and excess TV viewing. If your child demonstrates behavioral problems (that often stem from an inability to manage their emotions), it may be time to increase boundaries around their media use.
Unfortunately, technology provides the perfect distraction from uncomfortable emotions.
Think about yourself. When you’re waiting in a long line at the store or the post office, does your phone stay in your pocket? What about while you’re waiting for your son’s soccer game to start? And how often do you choose to sit and process intense emotions instead of watching another episode or scrolling through social media?
It’s so easy to use technology as a “coping strategy,” but it turns out to be no more than a distraction. Kids who develop these patterns early on will struggle to have the confidence and know-how to experience and manage their emotions in the future.
A great deal of research has found correlations between unhealthy behaviors and excessive media use—obesity, unhealthy sleep patterns, and a poor diet are just a few.
When kids spend more time in front of a screen, they’re missing out on other activities. Usually, screen-time is sedentary, which means kids are sitting around for a large portion of their day. Less exercise can lead to excess weight and even underdevelopment in other areas. And when that screen time extends especially before bedtime? Kids have a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep.
Eight year old kids spend the same amount of hours on screens as they spend in school. Even preschoolers, on average, spend four hours a day using media. All of this screen time means less time playing outside, reading books, or engaging in actual play.
While technology has its benefits, they’re nowhere near those of hands-on, real life activities.
Excessive media use by kids has also been linked to an earlier onset of risky behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, and premarital sex. Why the correlation?
The media your kids are consuming may not be as clean as you think.
And even if it is “clean,” the more time your kids spend consuming media, the more likely they are to run into questionable content. Even movies and TV series made for kids or teens will often expose kids to risky behaviors. That exposure alone is strongly associated with the initiation of those behaviors at an earlier age.
The shows we watch and the sites we read have a powerful ability to sway our thinking—whether we recognize it or not.
A TV series or a scroll through a friend’s profile might teach your child that promiscuous behaviors and underage drinking are normal and desirable. To them it may seem like “everybody’s doing it,” and “no harm done.”
What are your kids viewing and what kind of messages are they picking up from it? It may have a more powerful effect than you thought.
How to Encourage Healthy Media Use for Kids
With all of these challenges in mind, how can we help our kids learn to be masters of technology, instead of letting technology master them?
Designate Tech-Free Times
One of the most important things your child can learn in regards to media use is how to set and keep boundaries.
This one skill may be the deciding factor in whether technology is a benefit or detriment in their life.
Media use should be boundaried because the problems typically start when it becomes excessive. Help your child learn this skill by setting and keeping boundaries yourself: no phones at the dinner table, no social media during homework time, or no video games on weekdays. If you haven’t had or kept boundaries around technology, it will be messy and challenging at first, but stick with it. Managing technology use in a healthy way will take practice.
Research has found that even educational programs made for children aren’t very effective on their own. To make them worth the time, such programs actually need to be “co-viewed” with children, meaning that an engaged adult watches with them.
Without this, any kind of information is likely to go in one ear and out the other.
If your child wants to turn on Sesame Street, great. But try watching it with them and then later in the day, find a way to reinforce what was taught during the show.
Don’t Offer Tech as a Coping Mechanism
We don’t like tantrums either, but sometimes the choice to wait it out is an important one.
Resist the urge to offer your kids technology to ease uncomfortable situations, like when they have to wait or when they’re misbehaving.
Yes, it takes time and a lot of energy, but it’s worth it to help your child process their emotions in a healthy way instead of offering a distraction. Our books in the EQ Explorers Series provide perfect guides for you and your kids to learn how to do this.
Instead of having the TV on as background noise and the iPad always accessible, be intentional about how and when your family uses technology.
Teach your kids that technology use should be a conscious choice, rather than a passive and compulsive habit.
Try a “let’s watch this show at this time for this reason” approach.
Watch Your Own Media Use
Parental behavior regarding technology has a profound effect on the way kids use technology. Research has proven that your kids will likely end up using technology the same way you do. Be mindful of how much time you spend on your phone or watching Netfilx—especially in front of your children.
And perhaps the most important question to ask yourself: Is my own media consumption getting in the way of face-to-face interactions with my kids?
Our kids have the world at their fingertips—they can virtually walk through the Louvre in Paris, find images and primary accounts from the Civil War, video chat with a friend or relative living on a different content, or log into Zoom for school every day.
So what’s the difference between technology harming or helping our kids? The way they choose to interact with it.
Beware of the challenges tech presents and teach your kids how to manage them. We can still consider this tech-filled world as uncharted territory, but there are proactive ways to help our kids use technology in an emotionally-intelligent way.