The impact of technology on our kids.

There is no denying that our digital world is impacting our children. But what is up for debate is whether the consequences are good or bad. Opinions differ widely among researchers, educators, parents and other caregivers. Two articles recently published offer interesting yet different points-of-view on the subject of technology and how it affects kids. This is a healthy debate and one I hope grows in audience and scope. However, I think it is also important to talk about how to effectively manage technology across generations, as it becomes more pervasive in our every day.

The first article, published in The Atlantic, set off alarm bells for many readers. The author, Jean M. Twenge, identified a group she called iGen which includes those born between 1995 and 2012. She states that this group is “…on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades” and that “much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” Her analysis of the teenage generation concluded that loneliness and depression are more common than in the past, due to the increased time they spend on smartphones and decreased time they spend socializing in-person. Needless to say, her statements caused a lot of concern and deliberation.

A short while later, the author of a second article offered another opinion. Alexandra Samuel reviewed the same data as Twenge, along with some other studies, and came to a different conclusion. She deduced that the issues the iGen are experiencing aren’t being caused by their interaction with technology. Instead, their issues are a byproduct of their parents’ interaction with technology. As a parent herself, Samuel admitted to “…a constant juggling act between the needs of my children and the distractions of social media.” I know many parents can relate to that honest and unsettling statement. The result of this form of parental distraction is something that another researcher termed “minimal parenting.” This level of parenting involves decreased interaction time with children which, in turn, results in less encouragement of children and more attempts to control them. According to Samuel, this is the real issue we need to address.

Samuel’s suggestion is that parents become “…digital mentors: actively encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe the best way to influence a child’s digital habits is by teaching them and showing them the way. For example, education and modeling positive behavior in nutrition and physical exercise have proven to be effective in helping children build healthy, life-long habits. However, I don’t think that alone is enough to address this growing challenge. Government, industry and health groups have important roles to play as well.

As with nutrition and exercise, it is crucial that government and other organizations provide guidelines to follow, based on research and best practices. This information can help parents and caregivers who otherwise might not know what is ideal for types of online activities and time spent (by age). An example would be the recommendations for children’s digital media use provided by the US and Canadian pediatric organizations (both of which were updated in the past 12 months). In addition to guidelines, it would also be prudent to have limits in place for the marketing of, and potentially the use of, digital services and products appealing to children. These could either be industry-generated or government-imposed. Though it may be hard to imagine a need for measures like this, the situation in China offers a telling story of how this could come to pass in North America.

It is estimated that there are 24 million young people addicted to the Internet in China. In 2008, China was the first country to declare internet addiction as a clinical disorder. They now have ‘rehabilitation centers’ where parents send children with intense addictions to be treated with military-like tactics. Earlier this year, the Chinese government stepped in and introduced draft legislation that would ban minors from playing online games from midnight to 8:00 am. And just two months ago, Tencent, the maker of the world’s top-grossing mobile game, announced it was implementing game play limits on “Honour of Kings” for players aged 18 and under. Tencent has over 200 million users and more than a quarter of those are under 19 years old. So, these restrictions will affect a significant segment of its business. Whether Tencent did it to try and preempt government-imposed regulations or just “for the good of the kids,” it is clear that even they realized something needed to be done.

Whether the digital age is good or bad for our children may never truly be determined. But I think we should be collectively doing all we can to provide them with a healthy start to the rest of their lives. And that includes how and when they use technology, with the hope that it will indeed better their future. Parents and caregivers cannot do this alone. Government, business, educators, health organizations and the like also need to play their part. As the African proverb goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” That is truer now than ever, given the pervasive, highly-connected world we have created.

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