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Keep eye on kids’ tech use

By Dr. Jennifer Hudson

Special to the Salisbury Post

Technology is everywhere. It is our future. It is our present. It is how our children learn and study. It will be an important part of our children’s future careers. But technology comes with a dark side. It’s an addiction. It can be very dangerous. It consumes us. And as parents we must be willing to openly and honestly address the many negative aspects of technology in order to protect our children while acknowledging the benefits as well.

I am a pediatrician. I am a mother of three children who all attend public school. We have iPads, iPhones, computers, and video games in our home. I talk with parents and children daily in my office about issues with technology. I run a nutrition clinic in my office where we battle childhood obesity. And technology is a key component in this discussion. I care about children and how technology affects them.

Addictive activity

Technology is an addiction. If you don’t believe me, try giving it up for one week. Or one day. Or even one hour. It is so ingrained in our lives now that it is anxiety provoking if our phones are not within five feet of us at all times. In my office, it is often hard to have conversations with children and parents about their health because of phones and electronics. Children, and even some parents, are often texting, playing video games or answering their cell phone while I am discussing serious medical issues with them.

Every child in the Rowan Salisbury School system now has an iPad or computer at school that they can take home with them at night. It was done with good intentions, so that all children would have equal access to technology. We jumped into this as a school system and as parents fast and without enough dialogue.

Recently, a brave young student wrote an article addressing some of the issues with technology in schools. He described that every child in his school, both honors and regular classes, admitted to watching movies and/or playing games during school instruction time. Teachers know this but are afraid to complain and helpless to change it. With one press of a button, a child can change his/her computer screen to show the appropriate instructional screen when the teacher walks by.

Learning styles

Homework is almost exclusively done on computers or iPads. As a parent trying to help my child with homework or academic struggles, I find myself unsure how to teach or even to figure out in which specific areas my child is struggling. This is a recurrent theme I also hear daily from parents of my patients. And although some children learn well with computers, not all children learn the same way. While technology is important in education, it should not be the only way we teach our children.

When electronics became universal in the school system, the initial message to parents was that inappropriate websites would be “blocked” for students. This may have initially been true, but children have found ways around this at school. And any attempts at blocking access to inappropriate websites is lost when children go home or away from school. Education sessions for parents are now required at the beginning of the school year. These teach parents about the dangers of technology and encourage parents to screen their children’s electronics frequently. There are also apps and services to help screen children’s electronics.

It is important to realize that our children have been on electronics since they were very young. For every trick that we as parents know to keep tabs on them, they know another trick to go around us. They are technologically superior to us and know ways to game the system both at home and at school.

The dangers of electronics are immense. I once told my child when she was 10, “I trust you, but I’m not going to drop you off in New York City and tell you to go talk to anyone you want.” Yet on the internet, your child can talk to anyone in the world. Including sexual predators, pedophiles, etc.

Cyberbullying and sexting are commonplace among teens, and parents are usually unaware that these things are going on. Forty percent of teens have posted or sent nude or sexually suggestive content. Snapchat sends videos that can’t be re-watched. Perfect setup for teens who don’t want their parents to be able see what they have sent.

Poor sleep

Technology has a negative effect on sleep in children. If not monitored, some children will stay up late at night texting and on their computers. Some sneak them into their bedroom at night.

I had one patient’s mother who kept the computer in her bedroom and she would wake up and find her daughter crouched at the mom’s dresser at two in the morning, typing on the computer. When children use electronics right up until bedtime, it causes poor sleep quality, which leads to fatigue during the day and a change in stress hormones, resulting in obesity.

Most of the time, the more electronic use, the less exercise. When I started practicing pediatrics 17 years ago, pediatricians would recommend less than two hours of electronic time per day. Now children are on electronics most of the day at school. They come home and do homework on their electronics. Then they play video games, watch TV, watch movies or play on their phones. An average teenager spends nine hours per day on electronics. An average tween spends six hours per day on electronics. Physical activity is compromised. Health deteriorates and childhood obesity increases along with a myriad of disease states.

Years ago, I watched the Disney Pixar movie “Wall-E.” In the futuristic movie, humans sit in movable chairs all day staring at a computer screen. They become obese. They lose all ability to have social interactions. They even have forgotten how to walk. This satire is a scary example of where we are headed – at alarming speed.

Advice for parents

What can we do as parents? Here are a few ideas to start.

1. Start with yourself. Be an example. Don’t text and drive. Put your phone away at dinner and pay attention to when you are using it. Put it away and talk with your children, play with your children, love your children

2. Set rules in your home. Limiting total electronics time to two hours per day other than homework is a very reasonable goal. Let children decide which electronics are most important to them. Physical activity should come first and if there is still time, then electronics can be used

3. All electronics should be turned off one hour prior to bedtime. Remove them from your child’s room at night so there is no temptation or distraction and keep them downstairs in a set place. Sometimes the parent’s bedroom is the safest place at night.

4. Realize that electronics are a privilege and not a necessity. Every child does not have the “right” to have a smart phone. Privileges should be taken away if misused or rules aren’t followed

5. Closely monitor texts, online activity, apps, etc. There are many tools available to help with this. A few apps that can help include OurPact, Norton Family Parental control, K9 Web ProtectionBrowser, TeenSafe Manage and Net Nanny. Some are free while some require a small monthly fee. Make sure your children know that if they text it or say it on social media, it is out there forever and can be found.

6. Communicate with the parents of your children’s friends. Let them know if they find out anything inappropriate with your child that you want to know and vice versa. It take a community.

7. Let’s keep communication open and honest with the school system. Allow input from teachers without fear of them losing their jobs for speaking up. Let’s talk about the problems and brainstorm answers with our children’s education, including how to get kids off video games and Netflix during class time.

Technology is an important part of their education, but it should not be the only way to teach. Let’s combine multiple levels of learning so that all children find a way to learn that fits their style. And find ways that all parents can help their children learn, even those who aren’t as technologically savvy. There should be a plan if a parent chooses not have the iPad or computer at home.

This is the first generation of children growing up with extensive technology. And we are the first generation of parents trying to stay one step ahead of our children and keep them safe, while letting them explore. We can’t live without technology now. It is a reality of our lives. We need to keep these conversations going as we move forward as parents in this new technological era. It is our duty to protect our children.

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