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The Device Dilemma

If technology is on your kids' holiday list, here's a guide on what and how much is appropriate.

To illustrate the persuasive and pervasive power of technology, Allan LaReau M.D., a pediatrician at Bronson Rambling Road Pediatrics in Portage has a go-to anecdote.

“We were at a restaurant in Ireland and on the wall there was a sign that said, ‘No, we don’t have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other,’” he says, laughing. “That’s a telling remark — even in restaurants now, the phones are out and no one is engaging in conversation.”

Grappling with technology dependence and balancing virtual and physical connection isn’t easy no matter what your age. “Media diets” are even being prescribed by physicians to help adults pare down on social media usage and screen time overall. So, what about our kids?

Parents and caregivers are faced with an array of tech-related decisions in concern to monitoring usage for their children: Is it okay for a toddler to play a game on an iPhone? Will watching TV, even if it is Sesame Street, help or hurt his or her development? When do you finally cave in to your t(w)een and buy them that tablet, phone or laptop they’ve been angling for? Can or should you control the way your child uses technology?

This holiday season, we offer a technology guide to arm you with the knowledge to say no or yes (with structure and conditions) to your children’s requests for gifts of technology.

What is age-appropriate?

There aren’t any set standards concerning what type of technology (i.e. tablets, laptops, phones, games and television) are appropriate at what age, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has a clear set of boundaries that can help guide parents who are considering gifting technology to their child. The academy issues the following guide on how much screen time children should be limited to in a day and what type of screen time is acceptable:

"‘Screen time’ is texting on the phone, it’s playing video games, it’s watching T.V. — anything on a screen,” says LaReau. The only exception to the rule? Using a screen to read non-fiction or fiction for children over 2 years of age. 

“The more reading you do, the better,” says LaReau. “You can’t overdose on reading.”

The “no screen time” rule for children under 2 may seem strict, but the guideline is strengthened by current research.

“Children that are younger than preschool age learn the most crucial information about their development with object manipulation and looking at things in their environment rather than touching a finger to a screen,” says Nichole Holliday M.A., licensed counselor and therapist at Child and Family Psychological Services in Portage. If play and learning for this age revolves around electronics the child runs the risk of missing out on important stimuli for their development.”

Deciding what technology is best at what age really depends on your child, says Holliday, who advises that parents consider the following:

  • What is child is getting from the device?
  • Does the child fully understand the purpose of the device and what it should be used for?
  • Is the child able to properly use and take care of the device while observing parental guidelines?

“Parents should also be willing to set boundaries and offer alternatives to playing with electronics,” says Holliday. Alternatives to technology can be anything from a craft project to an outdoor activity that provides time to “disconnect.”

The Device Dilemma

Enforce rules and parameters

Children who are old enough to use technology and are ready for more access to games, television and personal devices still need guidance, boundaries, rules and structure, say the experts.

“It is helpful when gifting an electronic device to set up expectations for the child when using the device so that there are no mixed messages about the extent and nature of the electronic use,” says Holliday. She points out that parents should know the parental control options and capabilities of devices they gift and how to set-up safety guidelines for children, particularly on devices with Internet access.

“Identifying the expectation of how often, for how long, time of day, and where the device can be used are some things to plan for when setting boundaries for a child,” she says.

After gifting a piece of technology, the caregiver should remain in control of the use of the gift, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. And whenever possible, adults should interact with the technology with their children, to open communication about different activities.

“Some parents also choose to treat electronics as a privilege not a necessity,” says Holliday. “Parents should feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to screen time and be able to provide suggestions and encouragement for other forms of free play that do not involve electronic devices.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has some suggestions for guidelines parents can choose:

  • Model effective “media diets” to help children learn to be selective and healthy in what they consume.
  • Make a media use plan, including mealtime and bedroom curfews for media devices.
  • Don’t allow screens in bedrooms.
  • No violence in any media under the age of 12.
  • Always monitor screen time.

With teens, who usually have personal Internet-connected devices, structure and boundaries might seem harder to enforce, but LaReau says finding a way to place boundaries and enforce them — such as limiting texting or how long they can use the device — pushes teens to interact in-person with other people, which is an important part of their social development.

The unwanted gift

It’s no secret that technology use in general is a hot-button topic — every parent and expert has their own opinion on the benefits and drawbacks of devices— but sometimes a well-meaning grandparent, aunt, uncle or co-parent with a different tech philosophy might gift a piece of technology to your child for which you aren’t ready to roll out the welcome mat.

“Around gift giving times, preventative measures and discussions with friends, family and other gift givers could prove to be very helpful,” says Alyssa Noonan, a licensed therapist at Child and Family Psychological Services in Kalamazoo, who says these conversations might be enough to avoid unwanted gifts altogether.

Noonan suggests having a frank discussion with your child, as well, to clearly outline your feelings about technology and the access to tech privileges including what behaviors need to be demonstrated or at what age might your child be allowed to have certain technology. Set your boundaries clearly and early, so your child can anticipate your answer to their requests, or if a surprise technology gift shows up.

“Then, if an unexpected gift does appear, the child already knows what the parent thinks about it,” explains Noonan. “Although it may not prevent the child from becoming upset completely, it may temper the disappointment because it will likely be easier for the child to understand if they cannot keep or use the gift.”

Co-parenting presents a new dynamic to the challenge — agreeing on everything isn’t a realistic expectation, but compromise helps enforce boundaries by creating consistency for the children involved, says Noonan. But if boundaries remain different at different homes, there is still a solution.

“Talk with your child and help her or him understand what you expect and parent in line with those expectations,” she explains. “This communication makes the differences predictable and likely to be less troublesome.”

Warning signs

Once your child has been given the gift of technology, one way to monitor the effects of its use is to look out for signs of overuse, says Noonan, Holliday, LaReau and the APA. Warning signs of too much time with technology include:

  • Losing interest in other forms of play.
  • Isolating him or herself from others.
  • Losing interest in playing with other children.
  • Blunted social development.
  • A decrease in his or her level of physical activity.
  • A preoccupation with the device, asking questions and thinking about it when he or she is not using it.
  • Allowing the device to become a point of conflict between child and caregiver.
  • Experiencing delays in fine or gross motor skills because of too much screen time.
  • Engaging in aggressive play and experiences nightmares, if screen time involves violent themes.

Your child might exhibit these signs even if he or she is following the suggested guidelines, says Noonan, so the presence of these signs may still indicate over-exposure.

"Each child is different, and therefore, the appropriate amount of screen time for each child may also be different,” she says. “Moderation, moderation, moderation. Like so many other things in life, moderation is key.”

It is possible for children to become addicted to technology, experts now agree, and even though research on technology addiction is relatively new, doctors and psychologists are starting to see adults and children alike who may need to scale back their use of technology.

“All of us who have iPhones and gadgets know how addictive they are, and they’re even more addictive for children,” says LaReau.

For more information about the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for technology use, visit www.aap.org and search “media and children.”

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Addicted to technology?

It is possible for children to become addicted to technology, experts now agree, and even though research on technology addiction is relatively new, doctors and psychologists are starting to see adults and children alike who may need to scale back their use of technology.

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