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Keeping Kids Healthy in a Digital World

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Most of us can agree that digital technology has engendered unprecedented changes in our society that we don’t yet fully understand. Few need to be convinced of its positive benefits. But it is also clear that the internet must change to be more healthy and sustainable in our lives and in the lives of young people.

We, the research community, are grappling with the extent to which our relationship with media is contributing to the staggering rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, addiction, ADHD, and more. It can be confusing to sort through the conflicting articles, misleading headlines, and expert testimony about digital media’s effects on our children.  You, as a parent, also know, without thinking twice, that research is warranted. This brave new world can be degrading, overwhelming, distracting, surveilling, polarizing, and especially, addicting.

Children and Screens is the leading independent authority dedicated to supporting objective scientific research as part of a broader goal to ensure that children lead healthy lives in a digital world. Digital media should not come between you and your child, become the driving force for your child’s development, or put his or her health and well-being at risk. We highlight below several key points to keep in mind as you raise your digital native. Above all though, realize that you are giving a powerful device to your child that most adults struggle to control.

 

  1. Face-to-Face Connection

After decades of child developmental research, we know that face-to-face communication is vital to the development of healthy socialization skills, proper attachment styles, and empathy. Video chat can help your child stay connected with far-away family and friends but other screen activities should not come at the expense of real-life, face-to-face connections.

 

  1. Our Values
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Ask yourself – what do I value as a parent?  How can I best support my child’s exploration of his or her environment, promote self-directed play and creativity, and cultivate a strong sense of family and community? Take time to think about how your use and your child’s use of screens contribute to achieving your family values and goals.

 

  1. Technoference

“Technoference,” is technology’s interference in daily life and social interactions.  While your use of cell phones in the presence of your child may relieve stress, it may also precipitate child behavioral difficulties. To ensure that your device use isn’t detrimental to your relationship with your child, limit your own screen time.  Be a good role model.

 

  1. Cognitive Effects

We do not yet fully understand how digital media impacts child cognitive development. The NIH’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study preliminarily indicates that heavy screen use accelerates the natural process of “cortical thinning.” More research is urgently needed to understand the implications of these findings.

 

  1. Cellphones in Schools

We must adopt and enforce policies for cell phone use in schools. We must encourage that cell phones be put away while in the classroom, and that lunchtimes be device-free.  Avoid texting or calling your child during the school day — in an emergency, call the main office.

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  1. Privacy

We need to ensure that schools anonymize all student data at the district level to protect your child’s privacy. Children and Screens has suggested that school administrators add safeguards to depersonalize student data when signing up their students for educational apps: assign students with alpha-numeric codes instead of using names/personal identifiers. Additionally, show your child how to stay safe online. Make sure they understand what is and isn’t appropriate to share.

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  1. Online Communities

Technology offers vast opportunities for communication with others based on shared interests and ideas. Students can use the internet to connect with other peers from diverse backgrounds, learn about different points of view, and participate in various causes.  Provide guidance for prosocial internet use and help your child find positive communities.

 

  1. Physical Health Concerns

Screen use can interfere with exercise, disrupt your child’s sleep, and limit time outdoors. Kids may also experience neck, back or hand pain after extensive device use. Set up ergonomic workstations and always keep devices out of bedrooms to discourage late-night usage. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a nationally-renowned pediatrician who serves on Children and Screens’ national scientific Advisory Board, suggests that your children carve out at least three hours a day of screen-free time: one hour for a sport, club, or activity after the school day, one hour for dinnertime, and one hour before bedtime.

 

  1. Mental Health Concerns

Recent research has detailed a link between device use and depression, anxiety, ADHD, addiction, and other mental health concerns. Other studies suggest that there are weak mental health effects related to devices. Reach out and get help if you believe that the well-being of your child is adversely affected.

We must be more proactive in supporting our children. We must encourage the government to systematically analyze every app or platform to which children have access, intentionally or otherwise, to determine if it poses a threat to children’s health and safety. The recent YouTube FTC settlement over violations of children’s privacy underscores the urgency of advancing policy in this field. You, as parents, can help industry, institutions and the government be part of the change you want to see.

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Children and Screens is publishing a white paper “10 Digital Dilemmas Facing Parents Today,” featuring expert insight and guidance. We want to hear from you. Please write to us at parents@childrenandscreens.com. The article will be available on our website along with guidelines and recommendations for parents, research findings, and an online bookstore.

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Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra

Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, DO is the President and Founder of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

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