When Tech Is a Problem Child

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CreditWesley Bedrosian

In the Broadway classic “The Music Man,” set in 1912, the con artist Harold Hill shows up in River City, Iowa, and attempts to persuade the otherwise contented townspeople that their youth are slipping into degradation. He singles out a billiard parlor, “the devil’s playground,” as the root.

“You got trouble,” he sings. “With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

These days, you don’t need goosed-up threats of nicotine stains and rebuckled knickerbockers to rouse the anxieties of parents. All you need is to broach the one subject that everyone views as Trouble.

By now, all parents know that technology poses at least some threat to children. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that said while digital and social media can help early learning, they also come with a host of risks, including negative effects on sleep, attention and learning, along with higher incidence of obesity and depression. The group recommends that parents develop a Family Media Use Plan.

Fair enough, but what should be in such a plan? As the parent of adolescents, I want more than bromides. I want to know what other parents are actually doing that works.

For the last six weeks, I’ve circulated (on social media!) 20 questions covering topics like homework, passwords, bedtime and punishments. I received responses from more than 60 families, and though the survey was unscientific, the answers have already changed how we manage tech at my house.

FIRST PHONES The vast majority of parents who responded gave their children their first phones in sixth or seventh grade, with a few holding out until high school. But those devices aren’t always cutting edge. Parents opted for “dumb phones,” “flip phones” or “hand-me-down phones” from siblings or grown-ups. They also turn off features, including Wi-Fi, Siri, even internet access.

Other popular restrictions include: “Writing an expected behavior contract.” “No use of the internet on school days (except schoolwork).” “Screen time limited to 30 to 60 minutes per day during the week, unlimited on Saturday mornings.”

Another is a partial ban on group texting. “I was able to help my son feel better about not having this by allowing him to view group texts on the family iPad,” one parent said. “It helped him see how little value the group chatter has.”

Phones during friend visits are another issue: “Nothing more disappointing than seeing my children’s friends bring their devices to my home and have them focus on the devices to the exclusion of hanging out with my children.”

My own favorite way to limit tech use: “Poor reception — the phones don’t always work.”

Asked to give other parents advice on when to give their children a phone, the consensus answer was: Wait as long as possible. Once you provide it, it’s very difficult to take back.

HOMEWORK Should children be allowed to communicate with friends while doing homework? Two-thirds of the parents say yes; one-third say no.

Among the comments by the Yeses were, “Only if they are in common areas of the house” or “Only with the door open (so we can monitor).” Another added, “Depends if they are working on a project together, which is difficult to enforce.”

The Nos said that homework is done independently, and that if kids need help, they should find a parent, or the parents contact a teacher.

Wider use of computers for homework also drew mixed reactions. Some parents are quite strict, limiting all technology “outside of a computer for spelling or Google docs.” “Only homework-related sites and no social media.” “Only certain educational sites are allowed. Wikipedia is completely discouraged. I strongly believe that actual books should be read for research purposes as opposed to ‘Googling’ everything.”

Others are more lax: “You have to let them use the tools they will need in their lifetime. Otherwise, let’s give them coal and a slate slab, like Lincoln.”

BEDTIME Researchers at King’s College London have found “strong and consistent association” between using devices at bedtime and inadequate sleep, poor sleep and increased sleepiness during daytime. Parents have gotten the message.

An overwhelming majority ban phones from bedrooms at bedtime. “Tech needs a bedtime, too, in our house, 30 mins before lights out.” “No technology one hour before bedtime.” “At 9 p.m. she brings her phone downstairs, where it stays until 7 a.m.” “Devices are supposed to be parked outside the kids’ bedrooms before they turn in for the night.”

Some parents make exceptions on weekends or as kids get older. A few have no restrictions at all, though one otherwise tech-friendly mom said: “No earbuds! Our carbon monoxide detector went off one night and he did not wake up because he was sleeping with earbuds in.”

At least one dad goes to the opposite extreme, turning off the Wi-Fi in the house at an appointed time each night. “Same rules, better enforcement,” he said.

Also popular is to require phones to be charged outside the bedroom. “Everyone in our house puts phones on a charging station in our kitchen before going to bed.” “Devices are charged in the kitchen. (I cook a lot and I can keep an eye on them, especially when the children are punished and still try to sneak off with them.)” “At bedtime, devices go in the bathroom for charging.”

One mother has no specific place, only not in the child’s room: “My husband and I simply ask where the phones are charging during our ‘audits of responsibility.’ If the children try to work around the rule, they know the device will be placed in ‘jail.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA Many parents restrict first-time phone users to a single social media platform. “Only Snapchat; no Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.” “Only Instagram, and I check it occasionally.” “One platform at a time.”

Regardless of the sites, most parents insist on knowing passwords and logins. “My rules, until he was 18, were that I get all the passwords to all accounts. I did spot check from time to time.” “I have ALL usernames and passwords, and if they change, she has to update my list. If I try to log on and cannot, I get the phone until it pleases me to give it back.”

Do parents actually monitor their children’s online behavior? Some do. “I read texts frequently.” “We are ‘friends’ or ‘following’ all of his social media accounts, so we see every post.” “I have asked to read texts when daughter was hiding device as I came into the room.” “I do random audits. We talk about digital citizenship and positive words.”

But others prefer to give their children freedom. “When they each began texting, I read random texts. And I asked about the ones I read. (‘I see you and friend are chatting about the Jets,’ or ‘I see you and friend are chatting about another child in class.’) That way they know I can read any text at any time, even though I don’t.” “They’re almost all very boring.”

PUNISHMENTS What happens if children violate the family rules? Is it actually possible to separate a digital native from a device for an extended period of time? Behold, skeptical ones: Many parents say yes.

“Yes when younger.” “Yes, she responds to it.” “YES!! It’s the ultimate motivator!” “Yes. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then they find other things to do.” “I have. He gets very angry initially but eventually he calms down. Last spring I implemented a 3 week digital cleanse. He was angry each day for 3 days but also became more pleasant.”

Another common way to get children to adhere to restrictions is to have them pay for overages. “We pay the fee but have her pay overages.” “We also cut data off.” “She now babysits family friends to earn more and has to learn basic budgeting.”

FAMILY TIME Perhaps the biggest complaint about technology is that it eats into family time. So what techniques have parents used to take back that time?

First, tech-free dining. “No devices for all meals.” “No phones at the table, and that’s not just at our house. Siblings, nieces, nephews and my mom’s home have the same rule. No one gripes about it, they just do it.” “No devices at meals. No earbuds in the car.”

Second, consider positive alternatives. “Doing things that make phones a burden. Playing a fast-moving game, hiking, attending concerts or performances.” “We watch movies together, have a fire in the yard or swim when it’s warm and have game night, only board games allowed. They used to complain, but have found favorite games and look forward to it now.”

“Do something constructive together. Make sure everyone (even mommy and daddy) get their hands dirty. We often will cook together and make some of the worst meals ever, but it’s O.K. because we did it together.”

Finally, when all else fails, many rely on the old parental standbys: threats, bribes and public humiliation. Threats: “Randomly I scream, ‘Take that phone out of your hand!’ It limits their use for the next five minutes.”

Bribes: “Parent-child date night. (Parents alternate taking one child out for a treat; fourth week is parents night out.)”

Public humiliation: “If a device is picked up during family time, we get to open texts, and my husband and I do dramatic text reading.”

Now that’s a technique even the parents of River City might embrace. These days, trouble may start with the phone, but the solution still begins at home.

Sleeping Near A Smartphone Can Disturb A Child’s Rest

NPR

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

The last thing my 11-year-old does before she goes to sleep is put her iPod on the nightstand. And that could mean less sleep for her, researchers say.

There’s plenty of evidence that children who have televisions in their rooms get less sleep. This is one of the first studies to look at whether having a small screen like an iPod or smartphone in the room also affects rest.

The study, which was published Monday in Pediatrics, looked at 2,048 racially diverse fourth-graders and seventh-graders who were participating in a study on childhood obesity in Massachusetts. Lack of sleep is considered a risk factor for obesity, so the children were asked how long they slept and if they felt they needed more sleep.

They also were asked how often they slept with an iPod, smartphone or cellphone in their bed or next to the bed. More than half of the children, 57 percent, said they slept near a small screen.

Those children reported getting 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep on weekdays, compared to children who didn’t have the devices in the bedroom. Those children were also more likely to say they felt like they hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

The study also looked at TVs in the bedroom and found that children who slept in a room with a TV reported 18 fewer minutes of sleep than those without a TV, on par with other studies. And the big screens were even more common than the small screens — three-quarters of the children said they had a TV in their room. But they were less likely to feel like they missed out on sleep than the kids with small screens.

With both the TVs and the small screens, children went to sleep later, the researchers say. The small-screen sleepers hit the hay 37 minutes later than their screenless peers, and TV-watchers went to bed 31 minutes later. All the children were getting up at the same time because they had to get off to school.

And here’s one more wrinkle: Children who said they played video games or watched DVDs during the day also said they felt less rested. But the negative impact was much smaller than for small screens or TVs in the bedroom.

This study wasn’t designed in a way that could figure out what was causing the sleep loss and tiredness — whether the kids were actually using the devices thus exposing themselves to light and stimulating content, say, or whether getting calls or alerts during the night interrupted sleep.

My guess is that it’s all of the above. And though I don’t think my sixth-grader is texting at midnight, I’ve been worried enough about the disruptive potential of the bedside device that this Christmas she got an old-school bit of technology — a clock radio. That iPod is outta there.

Your Phone vs. Your Heart

From The New York Times

 

CAN you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

 

Kristian Hammerstad

 

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

Our ingrained habits change us. Neurons that fire together, wire together, neuroscientists like to say, reflecting the increasing evidence that experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.

Plasticity, the propensity to be shaped by experience, isn’t limited to the brain. You already know that when you lead a sedentary life, your muscles atrophy to diminish your physical strength. What you may not know is that your habits of social connection also leave their own physical imprint on you.

How much time do you typically spend with others? And when you do, how connected and attuned to them do you feel? Your answers to these simple questions may well reveal your biological capacity to connect.

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

To appreciate why this matters, here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. Subtle variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection, and as such, heart-rate variability provides an index of your vagal tone.

By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses.

Beyond these health effects, the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is far more plastic or amenable to change than most of us realize. The new field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is plastic, too, responsive to habitual experiences and actions.

Work in social genomics reveals that our personal histories of social connection or loneliness, for instance, alter how our genes are expressed within the cells of our immune system. New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.

If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

Barbara L. Fredrickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.”