I hope you learned in part one of this series, how addicting and attractive social media and screens are to children. Addiction too strong a word you think? Think again. Just watch many of today’s teens with their smart phones. They are regularly having intrusive repetitive thoughts of checking their phones for updates and clearly become distressed when the phone stops working or is taken away. In the addiction world that is called withdrawal. And once the addiction has taken hold, others can use it to strongly influence a child’s specific thoughts, feelings, and actions, a process called “Brain hacking”. Today, as promised, we are going to get into some specifics of what parents can do to guard against Internet addiction and brain hacking. Stay informed, stay engaged, and of course, stay tuned to this edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics.
Screens are addicting and can become intrusive
I know some of you are thinking that I am exaggerating the addictive quality of digital technologies and that I am blowing this issue out of proportion. I really don’t think so and here is why. Let me explain by using an analogy that makes sense to me. If you are a parent, you remember the tremendous, life-changing shift in your thought patterns that occurred the day your child was born. From the moment of your child’s birth, you began to worry about the well-being of your child, constantly. Were they safe? Were they hungry or cold? Were they, just OK? After your child’s arrival, your brain quickly became refocused and trained to be vigilant about this little person’s well-being 24/7. These thoughts became automatic, intrusive, and constant in your head. Like an itch that has to be scratched. Well, this is exactly what happens to a child who has become addicted to their smart phone and social media. They have developed an automatic, intrusive, and constant need to keep up with what is happening in cyberspace, just like a parent’s need to always be vigilant for their child’s well-being. But whereas, a parent’s worry serves a greater purpose, social media doesn’t and can become a major distraction for a child.
How does a child’s develop personal narrative and how do screens relate?
So what’s the big deal if a child spends a great deal of time with digital technologies and communication? They are still children, right? Yes, that’s true but remember what is happening during childhood; your child is developing their worldview, learning to interpret the meaning of events they experience, and making sense of everything. They do this by taking note of the consequences of events and by watching how those around them react to these events. This is the fundamental way our brains work; we learn to interpret the events and attach feelings to those events based on event outcomes and by observing the way in which trusted people around us are affected.
Psychologists call this process, the development a child’s “personal narrative”. Of course, one’s parents traditionally have the biggest input into this process…that is, until recently. Prior to the 21st century, one’s personal narrative was mostly about a child’s family but not today; cyber based technologies have eroded that influence, devaluing the influence of parents and elevating that of peers and our culture at large.
To quote well-known psychologist and physician, Dr. Leonard Sax, in his blockbuster book, the Collapse of Parenting,
“We now live in a culture in which kids value the opinion of same-age peers more than they value the opinion of their parents, a culture in which the authority of parents has declined not only in the eyes of children but also in the eyes of parents themselves.”
Sax, Leonard (2015-12-29). The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups (Kindle Locations 355-356). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
How has technology affected parenting?
You may be wondering. “How can cyber technologies adversely undermine a parent’s influence? Well, by becoming the overwhelmingly dominant influence on a child’s thoughts and feelings and a substitute force in the development of a child’s personal narrative. Let’s take a look at which cultural influences children have had available to them in the past and compare them with today’s world. You will quickly see that the combination of addiction and brain hacking is a direct extension of the invention of the Internet and the smartphone.
19th century-Children got some limited exposure to magazines, newspapers, and books usually censored by parents and exposure was very limited.
1920’s- the birth of commercial radio. Again, children were minimally impacted by this communication medium because listening was mostly a family affair, not a solo event.
1950’s, 60’s-This was the era of my childhood so I can speak from experience here. We had the telephone and television as our cutting edge technologies of communication but as children, we had very limited access to watching TV or talking on the telephone since most homes had only one of each and using them was again dominated by adults.
1980’s Now, access to personal and mass communication devices was coming within the sphere of children. In my opinion, and evidence indicates, that this is when homes started having multiple TVs and it is also the time when TV’s started creeping into children’s bedrooms. That’s when the troubles began. In 2010, the average American household had 2,93 TVs.
And finally, the current state of affairs- Now we have 24/7 communication with wireless transmission, streaming entertainment, personal entertainment tablets, computers, and smart phones. Of course, all on demand. This all adds up for many children, to a diminishing voice and influence of their parents opinions and thoughts and a new voice appearing in the children’s lives, one that is trying to sell them something or influence them in some other way.
How do we protect today’s children from the corrosive effects of Internet based technologies?
How do we protect today’s children from the potentially corrosive effects of Internet based technologies? I admit, these inventions are making parenting a very difficult task. In many respects, much tougher than in previous generations. I hear young parents talk about this all the time in my practice– “How can I deal with this rapidly changing technology that has the potential of having such a profound influence on my children?” What they are saying is, how do we protect them from, predatory marketing and persuasion by third parties such as corporations, marketers, or fringe political groups, or from excessive influence by their peers, or from having their innocence ruined by cyber bullying, sexting, exploration of pornography, excessive gaming, or engagement with malicious strangers in chat rooms.”?
Heavy questions and certainly hard to answer but remember that the brain hacking is a two-step process, first the addiction must take hold and then the brain hacking starts. Parents must address both of these issues if they hope to maintain control but most importantly, they need to prevent the addiction. Here are the suggestions I give my patients to stop both the addiction from starting and avoid the brain hacking that the addiction can cause:
Limit the technology available to your children until they are old enough and mature enough to handle what they are encountering and always protect them from becoming obsessed by these technologies.
Make sure that Internet tools and content that are being provided for your children are age appropriate. Their rooms should be screen free and their other screen activities should be done in the “public” parts of your home.
Make sure that you are using the current safeguards, filters, and limiting software that is available to you.
Refuse to allow your children to use technology that is encrypted and not visible by adults such as like SnapChat or Wickr
Stay involved in your children’s digital life and maintain close ongoing supervision.
Set out clear-cut rules about digital communications at home as well as when they are away from home.
Set a good example for your children.
And most importantly, help your children interpret what they are encountering on TV shows, in movies, on the Internet, on social media, and in the behavior of their peers and society in general. Remember that personal narrative they are forming, you want to be a large part of its formation. In short, only by being engaged and sensitive to your child’s feelings and thoughts and by helping them interpret what they are experiencing in their digital lives, can parents hope to shield their children from potential harm the digital world presents.
Each parent is going to have to decide for themselves the when, how much, and under what caveats their children will use digital technologies. I gave you my personal opinion of what I would do in part 1 of this series. If you have suggestions, please chime in. I welcome hour input and I do hope that what this blog post I have has stimulated your interest in thinking about these issues and helped you with your decision process. As always, I wish you the best.
If you enjoy exploring issues of child health and well being with pedcasts, consider taking a moment to write a review on iTunes or Facebook. This helps others find my podcast. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, you know, Doc Smo, trying hard to emphasize the importance of a parent’s word, and not the chant of the herd. Until next time.
Many thanks to my editors, Dr. Monica Miller and Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze.