Are you starting to feel like you or your children are spending more time in front of a computer, tablet or phone than with family and friends? Is technology keeping you apart instead of bringing you together? Do you feel a sense of panic when you realize you have left home without your phone? If the answer is yes, you are not alone.
We live in a digital world with technology abound: smart boards and tablets in classrooms, electronic health records in the doctor's office and homes aglow with laptops, smartphones, TVs, tablets and gaming systems. As pediatricians, we are often asked for advice as to how to balance the use of technology in the home. With summer upon us, we no longer have the school day and after school activities to automatically limit to the amount of time our children spend tuned in to technology at home. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend no more than two hours a day engaged in recreational screen time. Yet, the reality of recent research indicates that children are spending significantly more time plugged in.
The technology found in our homes is powerful and transforming the way we communicate and interact with our families. As pediatricians we hope to guide parents toward the benefits of this technology and away from the risks that can face families. While some of the practical benefits of communication and entertainment are clear when it comes to using technology in the family, the potential threats to family relationships may not be as clear. In her book, “The Big Disconnect Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” Catherine Steiner-Adair points out the increase in time we now spend online or on devices is eroding the time we spend with the people around us and that this time spent tuned in is taking a much greater toll on family connection and childhood itself. When researchers interview children about their parents’ use of technology, most children speak of their parents’ attachment to their phone or computer and a desire for their parents to put down their devices and pay attention to them.
As you transition to your family’s summer schedule, this is the perfect time to create a new family technology policy or reaffirm an existing policy. Here are five tips to keep technology use balanced and healthy for your family:
Make clear the devices that can be used, when they can be used and have a plan for monitoring usage and safety that is age appropriate for your child. Set clear consequences for not following the policy. Don’t reward children with technology time that exceeds your established time limit.
Monitor your own electronic use and model the balance of technology time you want your children to achieve. Follow the policy you set for the family. Children are tech savvy, and parents need to be clued in to the latest games, apps and social media that appeal to their children.
Establish restricted areas in your home such as family meals and children’s bedrooms and restricted times such as family social activities. Many children lose sleep to homework and after school activities and screen time should not add to their sleep deficit. Direct face-to-face communication is still our best tool in the family.
Schedule regular family time in the evening and/or on weekends without screens. These times allow for quality interactions, playing games, cooking and being physically active together. Encourage children to plan or choose the activities for this time. Children need to preserve the art of relaxing and observing the world around them.
Collaborate and let other families know what you are doing. Inquire about their family policies. Work as a community to support one another in helping children find the balance between tuning in and tuning out.
For even more tips, talk to your pediatrician at your child’s next check-up.
Dr. Sirota is a mother of three and a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs. She also teaches medical students and pediatric residents as an Assistant Professor for Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. In her free time she enjoys skiing, playing tennis and reading. While she treats most pediatric issues, she is passionate about the topics of complex chronic illness, developmental pediatrics and injury prevention. She currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Pediatric Partners a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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