Jan 31, 2024
I get asked all the time:
When is the right time to give kids access to phones and social media?
What parental controls should we use?
But I actually think there are two more useful questions to ask:
Do you have a strong relationship with your child?
Do you know how your child spends time online?
If you answered “yes” to both those questions, you probably do many things well!
One of the challenges parents and teachers face in this post-pandemic, highly technological world is a mismatch between what our children need from a developmental standpoint and what they see and experience online.
It is my belief that when we make decisions rooted in our child’s developmental stage, we make things easier on ourselves.
So what are those skills?
When it comes to realigning childhood with child development, a Tech-Intentional™ parent will prioritize three things: executive function skills, movement and play, and empathy and compassion.
Skill #1: Executive Function Skills
Executive function skills are fundamental to human development. These cognitive abilities develop in the prefrontal cortex, the very last part of our brain to fully develop (i.e., not until we are in our 20s or 30s!).
Regardless of our developmental path, neurotypical or neurodiverse, we all use executive function skills daily. These skills include:
These are really important skills to have, and we need them across all areas of our lives!
We often hear executive function discussed in the context of an ADHD diagnosis. With ADHD, executive function is impaired in some way, though it can look very different from one person to another. For example, someone with ADHD might struggle with being on time (time management), completing a project (planning), or struggling to pay attention in class (focus). A neurodiverse way of thinking and seeing the world makes for a much more interesting classroom or family, and I see it as a superpower, not a deficit. :)
The unfortunate reality, however, is that most schools—and most workplaces and some households—do not see it like this, nor do they build their systems to embrace and support neurological differences. Often, a child’s environment does not address neurodiverse ways of learning that might be beneficial for that child but instead contributes to or exacerbates the symptoms of ADHD.
And guess what!?
The symptoms of ADHD are similar to those of excessive screentime use: when children are engaged in screen-based technology that is designed to hook and hold their attention, regulating emotion or maintaining focus—both indicators of ADHD—becomes even more challenging.
I do wonder whether ADHD diagnoses have increased partly because screentime use has increased. I think it is a good idea for clinicians and parents to explore this screentime angle any time they are seeking an ADHD diagnosis or treatment.
Skill #2: Movement and Play
Playing on screens is not the same as playing with friends and toys in the real world. (I hear this a lot).
In his studies on development, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget said, “Play is the work of childhood.” (I love that so much!).
But adults too often discount play as important or facilitating real learning because we tend to see play as the reward we get for working hard! For children, that’s not the case at all. Play is their work, and we need to give them as much time and opportunity to practice it as possible.
Skill #3: Empathy and Compassion
Research shows that when children develop skills like empathy and compassion, they strengthen executive function.
However, there is growing concern that excessive use of social media platforms, especially as brains are maturing, can decrease empathy toward others. Social media companies admit they can’t filter everything (and their efforts are weak at best), plus, their algorithms push toxic content within minutes of logging on! (As one example, the Center for Countering Digital Hate reported that 13-year-olds were seeing recommended content about eating disorders and self-harm within half an hour of joining TikTok. I witnessed this firsthand myself when I made a Snapchat account pretending to be 15 and was immediately pushed porn.)
It is far easier to be mean behind the screen than it is to say something cruel to a friend’s face.
Building empathy comes from plenty of time in face-to-face relationships, practicing social skills, making mistakes, and seeing the whole person. It’s much harder to be mean to someone in your class when you know a little more about who they are.
When we make assumptions, we classify people people as “other.” We find things to dislike about them - then look for examples of those things - which we turn into validation of our reasons for disliking them in the first place.
Okay, so how do we prioritize these skills?
To strengthen executive function skills, practice living your life out loud. I’ve written extensively about that here!
Play isn’t just for little kids. Big kids need it too! For tweens and teens, play might be hanging out with friends, playing an instrument, doing an art project, or joining a pick-up basketball game. Parents can help prioritize play by ensuring there is plenty of analog downtime for kids and modeling that themselves!
It’s been said that “empathy isn’t taught; it’s caught.” Our kids learn about empathy and compassion by watching how we interact with others. How do we react when a driver cuts us off in traffic? How do we respond when someone upsets us on social media?
I hope these prompts help you think of new ways to sneak in a little extra skill-building!