While Generation Xers (born 1965-1975) grew up with televisions, Millennials or Generation Ys (born 1977 to 1996) were introduced to the Internet through stationary desktop computers. For children today (Generation Zs or iGens, born after 1996), technology is ubiquitous. Our current generation of elementary school kids have never known what it is like to be without a smartphone or tablet, producing children that have literally grown up playing with a parent or caregiver’s phone. As a result, today’s digital landscape is shaping how children and parents interact. Indeed, nowhere is the impact of popular culture and technology on children’s relationships more noticeable than in families.
Frisco’s Preston Trail Community Church Senior Pastors Paul Basden and Jim Johnson see this situation often within their congregation’s families, and, recently, they co-authored a book to help parents confidently engage their kids in meaningful conversations about many of today’s most complicated topics.
Pastor Johnson explains, “The biggest challenge families face today is the rapid availability of information through technology. Children are becoming increasingly aware of incredibly difficult issues much earlier in their lives than in previous years. Now, with social media and the Internet, kids are confronted with difficult topics such as suicide, drugs, pornography and more at significantly earlier ages. Because of this, we challenge parents to get ahead of this information and become the first voice to speak into their children’s lives.”
Pastor Basden continues, “When I raised my girls, I did not worry about them competing with some sort of device or screen. Today, children are distracted with so many other things and operate more in a face-to-screen environment instead of face-to-face. This significant change brings a great deal of concerns and fears for many parents. They worry their children will not be able to relate to others, learn how to negotiate or even fall in love.”
So, what do statistics say? According to Common Sense Media, 42 percent of children from the U.S., ages 0-8, already own a personal mobile device. The study also showed a tripling of mobile media screen time among the same age group, going from 15 minutes daily in 2013 to 48 minutes daily in 2017. All the while, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently revised its policy recommendations to help families manage media wisely, advising that parents of children younger than 18 months old completely avoid use of screen media, other than video chats.
A Psychology Today study found that children’s absorption in technology, from playing video games to texting, limits their availability to communicate with their parents. The study indicated that when working parents arrived home after work, a parent was greeted only 30 percent of evenings and was completely ignored 50 percent of all other times. Many parents, teens and researchers agree smartphones and other technological devices are having a profound impact on the way adolescents today communicate with one another and spend their free time. Interestingly, children who spend considerable time on popular social networking sites often indicate they feel less supported by their parents. “When kids are not on a screen of some kind, they learn to converse and negotiate. With increased use of technology and parents overprotecting their children, many children spend their days on screens of some sort and do not have time for board games, time outside or unstructured play,” says Pastor Johnson. “There is some research that indicates kids entering college may have a negative impact from prolonged and habitual use of devices, resulting in delayed relational maturity, failure to pay attention and inability to regulate emotions.”
Another new study by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at the San Diego State University, states that out of 5,000 American teens, three out of four owned an iPhone or personal communication device, and the arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from social interactions to their mental health. Since 2011, rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed, and much of this deterioration of teens’ mental health can be traced back to their phones.
Pastor Basden adds, “It is one thing to ‘cocoon’ with your family — spending time together. But, once the headphones go on, kids (and even parents) interact separately and often become recluses. Research is available that provides a direct correlation between screen time and teen anxiety or depression, and these increases in mental health issues are very alarming for parents and the community as a whole. Teens are struggling, and we, as parents, need to understand these issues comprehensively and take them very seriously.”
In addition to parents managing their children’s on-screen activity, they also struggle to keep up with the technology itself. Because of the lack of technological acumen on the part of many parents, they lack the authority, at least in the eyes of their children, to regulate its use. They also might be unwilling to assert themselves in their children’s technological lives as they feel uncertain in that area of expertise. “What comes very naturally for kids is a struggle for parents,” notes Pastor Basden. “Here at Preston Trail, we are putting together a ‘think tank’ for parents, applying research on the latest apps and technology advancements and then disseminating the information to other parents to help them stay ahead or, at worst, stay even with their kids. Ultimately, it helps to know what their kids are doing to mitigate their risks and keep the lines of communication open.”
While justifiable concerns exist, technology also presents many positive aspects of mobile device use within children. The last few years have seen an explosion in smartphone apps that seek to help little ones develop early learning skills as well as teenagers gain access to valuable education and resources. Kids have the opportunity to engage with educators, parents and online communities. As one educator stated, “There are lots of positive opportunities, positive lessons to be learned from media and technology, and I always like to have that balanced sort of approach to technology and talking to parents. It is very individualistic and very unique. Each case will be individual to that child and that family and the parenting style and so forth.”
With all this in mind, what should parents do to manage screen time for their families? According to Pastor Basden, parents should understand that they must discipline their children. “I find that, often, discipline is viewed only as punishment, but truly, it is teaching someone to do the right thing. Playing piano, learning tennis or praying is a discipline – it takes practice. So, I encourage parents to set boundaries and train their kids through the process. Be a good example and help them through it.”
Secondly, parents must hold their kids accountable. Pastor Johnson adds, “Sometimes, as parents, we think kids are supposed to learn the lesson the first time. But in reality, it takes several lessons. I encourage parents to persevere and track mobile usage. Then if needed, use some negative consequences. In my parenting days, we took away the car keys, but today, parents might just take away the phone.”
Ultimately, parents understand that technology itself is here. As one psychologist said, “Moderation is the key. In a connected world, we, as parents, must understand what is out there and what kids can access. Start here and stay vigilant.”