Parenting in the Digital Age

Parents and Teachers Must Address Digital Literacy

Story  Katherine Llodra.

In 2001, as I held my first baby in my arms, doting on her tiny fingers and the way they tightly wrapped around my own, I never imagined that one day those same fingers would be tapping on keys the size of baby fingers, opening the world to her with the push of a button and creating a dynamic shift in the way we parent.

According to the latest research by Influence Central, a child, on average, gets his or her first smartphone at 10.3 years old. That same study shows that by age 12, a full 50 percent of children have social media accounts.

As someone who supports parents as they raise their children, the most common challenge I hear relates to the topic of media and phones. Setting and maintaining reasonable boundaries and having lots of dialogue around technology are now fundamental parts of parenting.

The landscape for raising children in the digital age is changing rapidly and our kids need support, even if they think they don’t. Lessons taught around online safety at younger ages still require much more attuned communication as kids move into their middle school years. It’s up to us as parents and teachers to guide them as they develop the skills they will need to be resourceful, creative, kind, and intelligent digital citizens. Just as we teach reading literacy, so must we address digital literacy.

As Deborah Heitner writes in her book, Screenwise, “The number of kids who can produce as well as consume content has risen dramatically. This is an important change––it is one thing to operate the clicker and choose your own TV programs or choose your online content, but it is quite another thing to be able to create your own content and share it.”

You don’t need a PhD in social media or gaming to connect and help guide your child. They need us—their parents and teachers—to show up and remind them that we have their best interests at heart, and that we’re here to help with the difficult task of managing the demands of being online.

Talking with teens about their online lives gives them a chance to notice the ridiculousness of counting ‘likes’ or following someone they don’t

know or who poses to perfection. Kids are going to keep exploring and if we don’t stay curious about their experiences, we can’t offer them the opportunity to reflect and fully understand the content they are consuming or creating. And you can be sure, kids actually long for help, knowledge, and direction when it comes to finding balance and truth in their online world.

We live in a beautiful community with thousands of caring, connected parents. The more open conversations we can have with other parents in our circles, the better prepared we are to meet the needs of this generation of kids we are raising. It is very important, and this is not only with our children but with regard to other parents as well, that our interest comes from a place of openness and genuine interest to help. Simply sharing the message, “Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all this technology. Where do I start with rules and communication? How do you guys do it?”—is a great invitation to an open and honest conversation.

Finally, parents can communicate the values and behaviors that they think are important, but if we as adults are not adhering to our own advice – using the phone at the dinner table, sleeping with the phone charging next to our bed, or constantly posting photos of our children on our own social media – then our kids (who have a keen nose for hypocrisy) may feel some resentment. It is the way we live as adults that conveys the real message to our children about what we believe in and the values we hold and want to pass on to them.

This is the parenting mantra: “My role is to Mentor and Mirror rather than Monitor.”

Why Young Children 
Should Not Have 
Smartphones or Tablets

story  Jim Witous

It is an honor to follow Katherine’s positive and insightful parenting reflections (above) with a list of additional consequences of smartphone and tablet use among young children. My children are now in their 20s and 30s and didn’t face the same challenges with smartphone and tablet overuse that young children are confronted with today. My only concern 10-to-20 years ago was how to limit the number of texts they were sending. Fast-forward to 2020, when social media apps like Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, and YouTube help children use four to five times the recommended amount of technology.

Elyse Wanshel, a senior writer at LittleThings.com, has come up with 10 reasons why you should not give a young child a smartphone or tablet.

It can change the child/parent relationship. A parent’s voice, touch, and, eventually, play can help build pathways in an infant’s brain that aid them in learning how to bond emotionally with other people. But for children who spend too much time interacting with a screen, something different happens. Their neural pathways change and different ones are created. It affects concentration and self-esteem, and in many cases they don’t have as deep personal relationships.”

It becomes their first addiction. Smartphones and tablets allow children to get whatever they want immediately. It does not teach moderation, impulse control, or how to challenge themselves.

It sparks tantrums. If someone has an addiction, they will throw a fit if you take what they are obsessed with away from them—at any age. Giving a kid a smartphone or tablet to pacify them when they are having a tantrum isn’t a great idea either.

It prevents them from sleeping. The light emitted from a screen suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, and shifts the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. According to Boston College research, 75 percent of children aged 9-to-10 years are sleep-deprived to the extent that their grades go down.

It affects their ability to learn. A smartphone is harmful to a child’s ability to learn because it distracts their attention. They replace the hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills, which are important for the learning and application of math and science. Video and online games also limit children’s budding creativity and imaginations and slow their motor and optical sensory development.

It doesn’t allow them to reflect on their actions. It’s easy to say something bad about someone behind their back, but it’s certainly not so easy to say it to someone’s face. You can see their hurt facial expression and feel their pain, forcing you to reflect and feel remorse. But if you say it online, all of that goes out the window. You can’t see voice inflection, body language, facial expression, and even feel pheromones (released during face-to-face interaction). Real communication is not just about words.

It increases the likelihood of mental illness. Because it’s easier to be emotionally detached when online, more people are cyber-bullied. There are also endless images and forums online that can make a developing child or teen feel uneasy about their growing body. According to experts, too much time on smartphones or tablets has been a factor in rising rates of child depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit disorder, psychosis, and problematic child behavior.

It can lead to obesity. We are often stationary when we use a device, so if a child is addicted to one, they are not moving while they use it. That means limited physical activity, which increases the likelihood of weight gain. Children who are allowed a device in their bedrooms have 30 percent increased incidence of obesity, according to one study. Some experts believe that 21st-century children may be the first generation that will not outlive their parents, due to obesity and high use of tech devices.

It makes them aggressive. Because kids can’t learn empathy when overusing devices, they are much more comfortable being mean online, and being cyber-bullied almost feels normal to a lot of kids. There is also a huge variety of violent video games that desensitize kids toward violence. This mainstreaming of aggression prompts kids to think that violent behavior is simply a normal way to deal with and solve problems.

It encourages social anxiety. Learning social skills is imperative to a child’s overall success. If they are nervous interacting with other people, it may hamper their ability to be the best they can be. Kids need face-to-face time. If they abbreviate their emotions with technology, they’re living an abbreviated life.

Katherine Llodrá is a parent educator and trained teacher who celebrates parenting practices as well as home practices that transform the way we approach mindful living.  She is the creator of Mindful Good and lives in Sonoma with her husband and three children.

Jim Witous is the proprietor of caféMac, a technology and social hub in downtown Sonoma.

Join the conversation with Katherine Llodrá and Jim Witous starting in April 2020 and get tips and tools for navigating the online world with your child. Visit www.mindfulgood.com to see the calendar of events, or email katherine@mindfulgood.com.