The problem with hyper-connected kids in the digital age

Cindy Porcaro’s two sons, now 21 and 19, couldn’t have cared less about gadgets. Her older son didn’t have a phone until he graduated from high school, and her younger son, Paul, didn’t ask for one until his junior year.

With her daughter, Olivia, who will be 13 in April, it’s a completely different story.

“Olivia has been hounding me for a phone since fifth grade, and she got one when she turned 11,” says Porcaro, who lives in Downers Grove. “I gave in, but it was the probably the worst thing I ever did.”

At first, Porcaro thought the phone was great. Now Olivia’s always using it. “If she’s not at school, she gets up in the morning and flips the TV on. She has her iPod in one hand and her phone in the other, and at the end of the day, I’ll say, `are you still on that thing?'”

You’ve probably already witnessed children’s fascination with all things tech. But the ubiquitous nature of cellphones and iPods mean that today’s kids aren’t just connected-they’re connected 24/7.

A recent survey found that two-thirds of teenagers text every day, half visit social networking sites every day and one in 10 send or receive tweets at least once a day. And younger kids are getting-and staying-connected in increasing numbers.

It’s not just kids

While parents may worry about their kids spending too much time staring at small screens, adults are just as likely to be unable to ignore their own tech devices, even for short periods of time.

“Technology has made us so connected that we’re now exhibiting signs of anxiety-based disorders (when forced to disconnect),”says Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us. “Two-thirds of teens and young adults says they check their text messages and social media every 15 minutes or less. And when they are unable to, close to three-quarters of them feel moderately to highly anxious.”

Picture a typical meeting of adults-chances are that nearly everyone has their phones out on the table or in their pocket or purse. That fear of missing something-whether it’s an important call from the babysitter or simply the latest Tweet-drives the need to be connected.

And today’s kids suffer from the same fear, what Rosen calls “FOMO,” for “fear of missing out.”

“What’s going on in kids’ brains is that they’re constantly releasing chemicals that we have learned to interpret as anxiety-and the anxiety is about missing out on something,” says Rosen.

But while both kids and adults may feel anxious about unplugging, constant connectivity is a bigger problem for the younger set.

“When kids are constantly connected, it takes time away from other important skill development like social and interpersonal skills,”says technology and parenting expert Sharon Cindrich, author of A Smart Girl’s Guide to the Internet. “And too much of anything is not a good thing. Hyper-connectivity is definitely an ongoing issue and one that parents find hard to address.”

Unplugging your kids

If your kids seem unable to disconnect even for short periods of time, it may be time to step in.

“Being connected is not a good thing if it’s causing a sense of anxiety and the need to check (their devices) constantly,” says Rosen. “The solution is two prongs. First, you cannot let your kids be on technology all the time.”

When Rosen speaks to parent groups, he gives them a 1:5 ratio. When your kids are young, for every minute of technology, your child should spend five minutes doing something non-technology-related, whether it’s playing with “old-fashioned” toys, reading with mom or dad, or playing outside.

As kids get older, for every hour spent on technology, they should spend 12 minutes doing something non-technological to calm and reset their brains, says Rosen.

Second, you can help train your kids’ brains not to get anxious by forcing them to go offline for short periods of time.

In classrooms, Rosen suggests that kids be allowed to bring their phones as long as they set them on silent and flip them over. Then, every 15 minutes, students are given one minute for a “tech break” to connect. “You start with 15 minutes of focus and a one-minute tech break, and you gradually expand that to a half-hour of focus,” he says. “You want to help kids learn how to focus-and then extend that focus.”

Another strategy is to initiate non-technology time at home with your kids.

“Parents have to be more involved than they were, and get a little creative as far as coming up with non-connected things,” says Cindrich. “Just don’t make it `let’s unplug,’ which sounds like a negative. Instead focus on the new thing you’re going to do together.”

As she often does in her monthly Plugged-In Parent column, Cindrich suggests creating family rules for technology.

And if you set rules, follow through with them. That means parents, too.

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