4 Lessons for Parents in a Constantly Connected World
Posted by openbusinessinnovation
Parenting in the age of social media is no easy endeavor.
On the one hand, the web has allowed thousands of parents greater flexibility, either by working in traditional jobs from their home or starting and promoting their own businesses with the help of Facebook and Twitter. No longer needing to “go to work,” parents can be at home and conduct business in their free time, while still being available to their kids.
On the other hand, living “constantly connected” as many of us do can result in less quality time with one’s kids. While parents may physically be in a room, often their attention is elsewhere. In one tragic case, a 13-month old boy died in the bathtub while his mom was distracted playing games on Facebook. While this an extreme case, more parents are continuously pulled away by their ringing phone or the latest posts on Facebook or Twitter, resulting in less attention to their kids.
How do we find this balance of introducing children to the benefits of new technology, while maintaining and harnessing the power of direct human contact that no technology can replace? As a half-time single dad and social media professional, this is a huge challenge for me. Here’s my take.
1. Share in the Game: “Dad, check this out!”
I realized recently that my son was often playing online games of which I was largely unaware. He would go to his computer, and me to my laptop (to have our designated “computer time”), without much contact. Not only was I oblivious to the game’s content (and age-appropriateness, for that matter), but it also gave us very little to discuss later in the day.
I learned that the more I played or watched the game with him, the more context I had for discussing the game later that evening, including strategy, challenges and applications of the game to daily life. It then went from a distancing activity he did all by himself to an opportunity for dialogue and engagement.
2. Schedule Uninterrupted Time: “Mom, can you ever just focus on me?”
The challenge of living in an age of constant connectivity is that children often know that their parents’ attention may be taken away at any moment. They start telling us an important event that happened at school that day, and in the middle of it our phone rings, and we immediately answer it, leaving them feeling uncared for and unacknowledged. While many of us need to be reachable via technology much of the day, it helps to set a time just for our children, when we put aside all text messages, phone calls and other communication.
MIT technology and society specialist Sherry Turkle has suggested that one of the best things you can do is to leave your cell phone at home every now and then so your children know your attention is directed toward them. One father at a technology company I visited some time back said that the most profound change he has made to deepen his connection to his kids was to not answer email, texts, or phone calls between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. each night. His kids know that time is for them.
3. Unplug Before Bed: “Dad, why are we both so tired?”
Most of us need to be connected for much of the day, but a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation indicates that engaging with technology late at night right before bed is harmful to both adults and children. In fact, 63% of Americans say their sleep needs are not being met during the week.
This is in part due to screens. Dr. Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital explains, ”Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour — making it more difficult to fall asleep.”
The lesson: Engage in technology with your child early in the evening and leave the last hour to board games, reading and other activities. You will both have more energy and vitality the next day.
4. Start a Shared Technology Project: “Mom, let’s do something together!”
One activity I have not done regularly — but that I know other parents have and spoken highly of — is to start a technology project with a child. This could be designing a website together, either for oneself or a particular cause that is important to the child, or developing a game on a site like Scratch from MIT.
This then makes technology a shared learning experience. Both parent and child get the experience of balancing one-on-one interaction with technology to create something together.
So, how much screen time is too much for children? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day.
Yet I know many parents who believe that more is fine. They realize that while none of us knows what our children will do for work in the future, we can be pretty sure of this: It will involve technology. Kids today will likely be creating apps and websites that we cannot even imagine.
Finding this balance with technology is no easy task, and many parents I know feel a certain guilt that they are not more fully present with their kids amid a continually connected lifestyle. Yet technology offers engagement and learning for young people like never before — whether that be through social media, unfettered access to knowledge or sites like Khan Academy, which provides more structured math and science lessons to anyone who wants them, free of charge.
I haven’t met anyone who has truly achieved this balance, but it is a noble endeavor. In the end, the real challenge is less about technology and more about ensuring quality time with children. If we don’t achieve this, we may wake up one day and realize that our children are all grown up and that the opportunities to engage, live and learn with them are largely gone.
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