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How to help your children in this digital era.

How to help your children in this digital era.

With the invention of the Atari, Nintendo and other video games 30 years ago, free time has gradually become redefined.  It seems that many kids and teens are losing their imagination to devices that imagine for them.  It is common in mental health practices across the world for parents to express their concern with the time their children spend on the internet and electronic devices.  There is a growing body of research that is demonstrating that computers, devices, games, phones and other electronics do impact a child’s moods, contributing to anxiety and depression, their communication skills, brain waves, attention, relationships, violence and other behaviors.  Prominent among the research are findings suggesting how electronics negatively impact the developing child’s brain.  By way of review, our brains are not fully developed until the early to mid-20’s.  Infant and Toddler brains are particularly susceptible to all forms of stimuli and their brains tend to be more responsive and receptive to individualized one on one interaction with their caregivers or others.  Electronics seem to interrupt and disrupt the developmental process involved in the mirroring and reciprocating interaction between parents and children.

Many may be familiar with the still face experiences and research that has been done over the past five decades.  This research shows how infants and toddlers become emotionally dysregulated when they experience their caregivers with a still and emotionless facial expression and non-responsive behavior and then they return to normal emotional regulation when their caregivers return to a normal healthy regulation.  Research is finding that parents who engage with their devices when their infants and children are around are experienced and perceived by their children the same way as the children in these replicated experiments.  The children become emotionally dysregulated.  If emotional dysregulation is persistent and unresolved, it contributes to increased anxiety, depression, anger and violence.

Parents often ask: “what should I look for to know if my child has a problem or not?”  Outside of developmental emotional expression, if your child seems to experience persistent signs of irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, isolation, self-harm, fatigue or sleep deprivation, changes in eating patterns, decreasing school performance, decreased time with friends, increased time with certain friends to the exclusion of others, behavioral problems at home or school (i.e. aggression, isolation, etc.) your child may be experiencing the side effects of too much electronics and internet use.  Addressing these issues can sometimes seem overwhelming, but the worst thing you could do is nothing.  Some strategies for preventing and addressing these tendencies include the following:

1.         Regular, consistent and quality one on one time with your child.  This may look like a formal sit-down conversation, spending time with them doing something they like to do or a combination of the two.  Why not go to the back yard or park and kick or throw a ball around?  Read a book out loud to your child.  Put a model or a puzzle together.  Play a duet on the piano or with other musical instruments.  Whatever it is, make sure the activity involves your child and seems to reflect their energy and personality.  Interacting and talking openly in all kinds of contexts and about all kinds of topics helps our children to feel safe and secure.

2.         Clear and defined boundaries and ground rules in the home for all internet and electronic use including specific time of day, duration and approved content.  Parents following this ground rule as well makes it easier for children to do so.  Too often, we get caught in the belief that boundaries and rules are punishments.  They may be if they are only administered when an individual has made an unhealthy choice.  However, boundaries start when we begin raising children.  We put up gates to separate infants from stairs as they begin to explore their environment more.  We tell children not to touch something that is hot.  We expect our teenagers to follow a curfew.  Each of these are examples of boundaries or rules and each is created for safety.  Boundaries are personal declarations of safety that we keep ourselves.  Modeling and maintaining boundaries in our home, teaches and encourages our children to create and maintain their own.

3.         Monitoring software and filters are useful, but filters should not be considered a permanent fix.  Cell phone monitoring apps such as “Family Base” and device monitors such as “Circle” are useful.  However, the best filter is by far the regular conversation at various intervals along the developmental journey, where children learn that they can talk with their parents about anything and feel safe instead of threatened or punished, accepted rather than judged, understood rather than ignored.  As already indicated, if we are actively engaged in our children’s lives, have clear and maintained boundaries, then children will understand the purpose of filters and won’t spend time figuring out how to get around them or sabotage them.

4.         Developing crucial conversation skills so that topics such as pornography, violent video games, sexting and other problematic device behaviors (which tend to be hard conversations for some families) can be addressed in a healthy and productive way.  These types of crucial conversations start when our children are young, and their minds are impressionable.  If our children know that we do any of these things or at the very least, minimize them and then experience us telling them not to do these things or talk about these things in a shameful way, then our children will not respond to the warnings we are giving them.  The age at which children are first introduced to pornography is getting younger and younger.  Different surveys produce different results, but the average age of children introduced to pornography for the first time is 11.  We need to begin addressing children’s emotions, beliefs and behavior when they are young and incrementally add topics around maturation, body change and puberty, the appropriate vs. derogatory names or labels used to describe women, men, body parts and acts of intimacy.  As our children grow, so does the detail and complexity of the conversation.  We don’t teach our children about things in one conversation because none of us learn anything well in one simple conversation.  Our brains and bodies learn from repetition.

Children and adolescents are experiencing more challenging times than has ever been.  The digital world has brought more danger to the fingertips of all of us.  The digital age is affecting how we perceive ourselves and others, how we feel about ourselves and others, sending mixed messages that need clarification and making direct, one on one interaction more challenging.  Our children need emotional support, guidance and emotionally balanced and regulated parents to help them work through moments of anxiety, moments of depression and sadness, moments of embarrassment and insecurity.  Our children generally seem to respond better when things are done with them or modeled with them, rather than telling them to do something or mandating that something be done.  You will see better results by setting a clear and consistent example and engaging with them in healthy, quality, structured activities.  If you follow these guidelines consistently for a month and don’t experience any changes, please consult with a licensed therapist on additional interventions that may be used.

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