The Digital DilemmaWhat is Technology Doing to Your Family?

Cheryl's BlogCheryl's Blog

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Digital Dilemma

What is Technology Doing to Your Family?

I still remember the 14-year-old boy I met several years ago for a first appointment in my office. He was nervous--not surprisingly, since seeing a therapist wouldn't be on any 14-year-old's list of favorite things to do--and he wanted me to know he didn't really have any problems (other than his overprotective mother, of course). He announced to me, with an appealing mixture of bravado and shyness, that he had 452 friends. 

At the time, I was unfamiliar with social media. I remember thinking, "How on earth can he possibly know that he has exactly 452 friends?" Of course, eventually I figured out that he was referring to his MySpace page, which later morphed into his Facebook page. And now, Facebook is everywhere and "friend" is a verb rather than just a lowly noun. I'm curious, however, about friendship. Do kids make and keep friends these days the good old-fashioned way?

The research is piling up quickly, folks, and the initial results are sobering. But first, let me be clear: this is not a Doomsday rant about the evils of modern technology. I am writing this blog (another word that didn't exist 10 years ago) on a new Mac computer, using notes and articles I've clipped on my Kindle, while texting a colleague on my smart phone. I'm on Facebook, too, both personally and professionally. Like it or not, the technology is here to stay. More than that, it is expanding in power and applications and no one can foresee with any precision where it is headed. My son is now 27 years old; ten years ago, when he was in high school, our big debate was whether or not he could have a pager. Anyone remember pagers? Pay phones?

These days, 10 percent of American two-year-olds have used a smart phone, tablet, or other mobile device. Half of babies under the age of two watch two hours a day or more of television. One in 10 kids ages 5 to 8 uses a mobile device every day and 39 percent use a computer every day. One survey found that most kids spend twice as much time watching TV every day as they do reading or being read to, despite the fact that we know reading is one of the best ways to ensure kids will do well in school. 

Experts like Bruce Perry, who has spent a lifetime working with children who have suffered childhood trauma, believes that moving our relationships "online" is having a negative effect on our ability to feel--and to teach our children to feel--empathy. A recent study found that kids are willing to be ruder and meaner online than they would in person because they don't need to fear physical violence or face-to-face reactions. The same study found that 95 percent of all teens ages 12 to 17 are online and 80 percent of them use social networks, as compared to 55 percent online in 2006. The experiences are mixed: teens report that they have been bullied, that things have been posted that made them worry about going to school the next day, and that some have ended friendships over Facebook postings. But others note that they have come to the defense of someone being bullied online, and that Facebook encounters have made them feel good about themselves and hopeful about their lives.

In other words, it's not a black-or-white issue. Technology and social networking are only going to grow, and there are both gifts and challenges folded into these amazing new parts of our lives together. Some preliminary research indicates that texting and communicating through a screen is damaging our kids' ability to use the language (both spoken and written) and may even be changing the way their brains are wired, making it more difficult for them to read facial expressions and nonverbal communication. Tablets and computers also open whole new worlds for exploration and connection. What is a parent to think? To do?

We live in an age of digital connection. But we need to remember that the human brain--and the human spirit--still depends on human connection. In other words, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face, connected, attuned relationship. It may be tempting to give your child the latest gadget to prepare her for school--or to keep her entertained when you have things to do. But remember that all important early learning happens through the relationship a child has with her mother and father, and later on, with a caring circle of friends and teachers. If those critical relationships are disrupted or insecure, a cascade of problems can ensue. 

Your child does not need an iPhone, a Kindle Fire, a Leapfrog, or whatever latest and greatest product hits the shelves next week. I'm serious: some of us actually grew to adulthood without a computer or the ability to text, back in the days when a friend was someone you could actually hug. What your child needs is you: your time, your attention, your involvement and love. Gadgets and doo-dads are optional.

| Posted by cheryl | Friday, November 11, 2011|


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