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Phones, tablets and apps galore are competing for the undivided attention of their children and teens – and chances probably seem good to many moms and dads that the technology is winning.
So what can we do to make sure that our kids are getting the most out of their Internet-connected gadgets? Is there a way to promote their educational potential while mitigating the negative consequences?
Five experts convened March 23 by the Northern Illinois University College of Education to explore “The Digital Lives of Children: Giving Screen Time a Closer Look” offered opinions and strategies that can help parents make sense of it all.
- Remember that quality of content and user experience matter. All devices are potential tools for learning through their rapid feedback and just-in-time information. Developers of instructional technology consciously design software to deliver active learning that follows educational best practices. Ask yourself: Is this device or app helping my child to learn about the world – and to make sense of it? Is it making a stronger impact than a textbook? Searching the Internet for information can turn users into critical consumers who spend their learning time deliberating what this information means rather than digging for it.
- Set rules. The American Academy of Pediatrics in October 2016 issued new recommendations for screen time, including zero hours a day for children from birth to age 2 and no more than one hour a day for preschoolers. For school-age children – kindergarten through high school – establish screen-free places, especially bedrooms, and screen-free times, such as family dinner and one hour before bedtime. Parents also must realize that their own digital lives influence those of their children; if they’re watching you, turn off the tablet or put down the phone.
- Keep a close eye on your child’s digital life. Remind your kids that part of the agreement of supplying them with tech is that you are free to monitor their devices, scroll through their screens and ask questions. Make sure you understand the functions of their favorite apps. If they’re on Snapchat, you should join Snapchat. If you aren’t familiar with their apps, yet you choose not to intervene, consider that akin to allowing them to spend the night at the home a friend whose parents you’ve never met. Network with other parents to stay informed.
- Encourage active programs. The hugely popular Minecraft – “Legos with no parameters,” said panelist Jennifer McCormick, a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary School in Sycamore Community School District 427 – requires users to think creatively and to interact. Many videos on YouTube are instructional, harnessing the medium of “modeling” to teach viewers to cook, knit, braid hair or thousands of other things in a way that’s far more effective than words on a page. Even video games require players to remain actively engaged by plotting strategies and making and executing decisions. Many video games also spool out instructions as the games progress, something that forces constant attention – unlike presenting all the rules before the game starts and likely causing players to ignore them.
- Pay close attention for “red flags” of digital addiction. Are their devices getting in the way of their normal activities? Are they choosing their phones over other alternatives for human interaction or physical activity? Are they ignoring you? Do they put up a fight when asked to turn off, or turn over, the tech? Are their grades suffering? Is their use of technology a way to self-medicate for depression?
For parents who fear it’s already too late, panelist Danielle Baran, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, has advice: Ask yourself how you got to this place. For example, if your children need screens to calm down, did you instill that behavior?
Baran also agreed with fellow panelist Susan Goldman, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago: Human interaction – human emotional connection – is key.
“No technology you can invent has more buttons than you,” Baran said. “You are limitless.”
Other members of the NIU College of Education’s Community Learning Series panel were John Burkey, superintendent of Huntley Community School District 158, and Jason Underwood, senior instructional designer at assistant director of the NIU eLearning and Digital Convergence Lab.