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It’s a new game. How does the internet change parenting.

“Kids these days.” We are all destined to say it at some point in our lives, but are kids today really that much worse than in previous generations?

I don’t think they are any worse. They do have a different code and culture which makes parenting them different than how our parents parented us.

In order to better help kids today, it is important to consider how much of a role cell phones, the internet, and social media play in their lives.

In June 2007, the iPhone was released. 11 year-olds today, have not known a world without internet or having all Google’s information available to them in their pocket. A kid today is exposed to so much more than kids of the 90’s. Where, 20 years ago, a teenager’s primary influence was the children in their school and neighborhood; today, a child can be influenced by people on the other side of the country. This also means, adults get a front row seat to all of the terrible decisions kids make.

In the age of Ice Bucket Challenges, Hot Pepper Challenges, and Tide Pod Challenges, all of which are publicly viewable, it isn’t hard to fall into the mindset that kids are losing their minds. But, if you look back into history, you can see that kids have always been trying to push limits. In the 1930’s, kids tried to swallow as many whole goldfish as they could (the record was in the 100’s); The eraser challenge was invented back in the 60’s; and in the year 2000, Jackass was aired on television. With the exception of Jackass, there was not all the exposure that kids receive today.  Meaning, 1. our dumb decisions stayed between us and our friends (and possibly our doctors) and 2. Those of us likely enough to actually try these challenges were only able to learn about them through word of mouth.

So, without further adieu, a list of ways we can adjust our parenting to the culture of today’s youths.

1. Constant exposure

Too much of anything can be a bad thing. In my practice, when assessing a child’s behavior problems, one of the first questions I ask is “how much screen time does your child get?” This includes television, phones, tablets, video games, and computers. The number is often in the several of hours.

For 2-5 year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics only recommends 1 hour combined and with supervision. For 6 and up, they recommend just making sure media time is not interrupting sleep, social time, homework, and physical activity.

The internet, social media, and video games are designed to keep a person’s interest for as long as possible. They are addicting which is why the International Classification of Diseases now includes Gaming Disorder as a diagnosable condition. As it takes more of a role in a person’s life, it can begin to take precedence over other aspects including exercise, sleep time, and face to face time with friends and family.

Kids cannot be expected to regulate their screen time themselves. The part of the brain that is most important in self-regulation doesn’t finish developing until around 25 years of age. As they get older and are developing the skills to regulate themselves, they should be given more (not absolute) reign to be able to set these restrictions for themselves, but a 2-5-year-old, a 6-12-year-old, needs the parents fully developed brain to help the child with setting limits and having a balanced life.

2. More influences

As a child, I can remember playing football with several kids from my neighborhood when my dad came out and recognized one of the kids as someone whose family had issues with the legal system and the dog with him had a history of biting. We were told to stop playing with him. We were mad at the time, but, now, I know it was a decision that was for our best interest.

When I was a kid, parents were more able to see who I was spending time with because spending time meant face-to-face time. Parents had many opportunities to screen the people with whom I was choosing to be around.

As my parents would not let me spend time with anyone without some screening, parents need to be screening who children are choosing to spend time with through the internet.

The examples of internet bullying, sexting amongst teenagers, and challenges like the Blue Whale Challenge, which slowly desensitizes kids to commit suicide, are in the thousands. Screening a kids internet time is not an invasion of privacy, but is more like giving them a life jacket until they learn to swim.

3. Modeling

Children learn more from what they see than what they are told to do. In order to help kids develop a better sense of regulation over their screen time, they need to see the biggest influencers of their lives model self-regulation and balance.

When I am in the community, in schools, or in my own waiting rooms, it is not unusual to see a parent’s nose buried in their phone while their child is left to fend for themselves for ways to manage their time. When kids see their parent managing their boredom by browsing the internet, they are more likely to use this same strategy with their own boredom. Until they have access to this boredom filler, they are left to their own devices to figure out how to fill their time. The following is not an unusual exchange:

Mom and child walk into the waiting room. The child is told to sit in the chair. Mom pulls out a phone to look at Facebook.

Mom looks up and sees child is wandering around the room: “sit down.”

Child: goes to sit down.

Mom looks up to see the child was wandered to the staircase and is balancing on the banister: “get down from there and sit down.”

The child who is growing bored with sitting and learning this is a good way to get mom’s attention: “but I am bored.”

Mom: “They will be out in a minute, you need to sit down.”

Mom looks up again and sees child crawling under chair: “get out from under there and sit down.”

Child: “it’s taking too long.”

Mom: “here, play a game on the phone.” Hands child phone

This example is not a far exaggeration from what I typically see. The mother left the child to his own devices without direction for how to spend his time. The child wandered trying to find something to do. He was eventually taught that the best way to manage his time was to use a phone, a lesson that can carry through adulthood.

If the mother would have kept the phone in her pocket and helped him to find a way to keep entertained, the situation would have created many learning opportunities and could have built a stronger relationship between mom and child as they would have been spending positive time together and there would have been less or no corrections needed.

4. Connection

Teach a child to connect with people, not the internet.

By encouraging family time and no electronic time in homes, parents can help to foster strong relationships with their children and help them to develop social skills as well as other skills. Many experts have expressed concern that the over reliance on the internet has created deficits in other areas. Kids are not using scissors as much so they are losing finger dexterity; they are texting and watching edited videos so they lose the ability to understand body language and how to have a social interaction with other humans; studies are even suggesting people are losing their peripheral vision because of how much they are staring at a screen.

Much of the work with children’s behaviors is through teaching them how to act as opposed to teaching them how not to act. Playing Red-Light, Green-Light teaches kids self regulation; Legos foster creativity and teach problem solving; and taking time to read books in early childhood has been strongly linked with future success. These are skills that cannot be replaced with a computer and are best taught by the people they love the most.

Now what?

Take the above thoughts and begin connecting with kids. Teach them that there is a life outside of the internet and show them how to interact in it. Not only will this help your children to develop skills that will put them steps above their peers, it will also help parents to get to know their kids, build connections, and reduce their own reliance on the internet.

The internet has solved and continues to solve many problems, but it needs to be used in moderation and cannot be relied upon for everything.

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