Technology and Family Life

“How do you handle screen time—iPads, iPhones, computers—with your kids? Do you have rules?” The 92 Street Y posed this question to readers on Facebook in preparation for its recent conference on parenting. I know many of you probably do have rules, and if you’re reading our blog, you have probably thought about this quite a bit before.

That technology is headlining a major parenting conference is not much of a surprise these days. How we manage or don’t manage to manage our devices and our kids’ relationships with them is at the front of many of our minds.  It may be the major parenting concern of our time, say some, topping potty training, sleep, and discipline. (Though, interestingly, a recent survey of parents finds otherwise.)

Keynoting the parenting conference was Catherine Steiner-Adair, whose book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” got lots of press when it came out last summer. Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, interviewed 1,000 children and 500 parents in focus groups and came away concerned about the effect media is having on empathy, attention, and family relationships.

Today’s parents, Steiner-Adair says, spend too much of our days glued to iPhones, waiting for the next text to come in. We’re sending a signal to our children that what’s on our iPads or phone or laptops or e-readers matters more than our kids’ needs and thoughts and feelings.

We’re sending a signal to our children that what’s on our iPads or phone or laptops or e-readers matters more than our kids’ needs and thoughts and feelings.

Steiner-Adair also writes eloquently about some of the dangers technology poses at every stage of development. While we look at this issue from a different angle here at the Fred Rogers Center—we believe technology has the potential to foster early learning and development if used intentionally and appropriately—Steiner-Adair’s comments about family life are well-taken. I particularly liked her piece at Parenting that focused on the how.

“In my six months on the road since ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age’ was released,” Steiner-Adair writes, “in deep conversation with kids, parents, an educators, the most asked question is ‘how?’ How can I get a handle on this while my child is young? How can our family make some changes in habits we can all see aren’t the best?”

These are the kinds of questions that are on all of our minds. Steiner-Adair recommends:

    • Make your infant and young child’s room screen-free.
    • Don’t let the magic of the screen replace the magic of real-life play.
    • Create rituals for you and your child that acknowledge when you’re paying attention to screens and when you will turn them off.   She recommends creating specific times for you to get your work done, but also creating designated periods of time (after picking children up from school or child care, for example) when you will stay offline and be with them.
    • Be picky about the types of media your child interacts with.

We also have some good ideas for parents. We’ve written before about how to help your children develop a healthy media diet and the effect of background media on young children. We’ve also written about how some see learning potential in new media tools that parents and young children can use together.

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading Mike Robb’s post on this blog “For Infants and Toddlers in the Digital Age: Time with Adults Still Matters Most.” Robb, who studies the impact of electronic media on young children’s language development and literacy, encourages parents to think critically when choosing apps for young children and to pay particular attention to each child’s age and developmental stage. He reminds us to focus on what we know from the research about how young kids think and learn.

Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, we should be looking at what child development research has been telling us all along and asking whether the warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers that is so critical for developing the cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic skills children need for school and life success is happening when they use digital media.

Similarly, if, as Steiner-Adair suggests, you’re looking for more advice on how to “be picky” when choosing media for your children, the Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment™ (Ele), is a good place to start, particularly for the younger set. This web-based support system has a curated selection of resources for parents, teachers, and home-based care providers of children from birth through age 5. Users can browse through materials from around the web, including videos, games, e-books, music, and other interactive tools. Common Sense Media is another great resource for parents looking for appropriate, high-quality media for kids of all ages.

As Steiner-Adair writes, “Technological innovation by definition takes us into unknown territory and will continue to alter the landscape of everyday life in ways that hold us in thrall.” We owe it to ourselves and to our children to pay attention.

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