Taking a Break from Technology

A View from My Window: Reflections of the Executive Director

It’s hard to imagine a world without technology. Increasingly simple and powerful electronic devices offer instant access to friends, facts, news and entertainment. The social and educational content available on television, computers, cell phones, and even wrist watches is especially helpful to children with emotional, intellectual, and physical challenges.

But for all its benefits, technology has significant drawbacks. Exposure to violence and other inappropriate content can be dangerous. Addiction, distractibility, and physical inactivity are increasingly common “side effects” of overuse. And the consequences are more harmful for younger children.

“Children’s developing sensory, motor, and attachment systems have biologically not evolved to accommodate this sedentary, yet frenzied and chaotic nature of today’s technology,” writes pediatric occupational therapist, Cris Rowan. Further, she warns,

The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child has seen an increase of physical, psychological and behavior disorders that the health and education systems are just beginning to detect, much less understand. Child obesity and diabetes are now national epidemics in both Canada and the U.S., causally related to technology overuse. Diagnoses of ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, developmental delays, unintelligible speech, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders are associated with technology overuse, and are increasing at an alarming rate.

At Children’s Center, we see a range of risky behaviors rooted in the misuse of technology—particularly internet pornography. And a great deal of damage is caused by children themselves, who, often unwittingly, share inappropriate content with their peers.

“In 82% of online sex crimes against children,” writes Pamela DeLoatch in “The Four Negative Sides of Technology,”

the sex offenders used social networking sites to get information about the victim’s preferences. And the anonymity of technology can also make it easier for people to bully others online. A quarter of teenagers say they have been bullied either by text or on the Internet. Sexting is another high-risk behavior of concern, with 24% of teenagers aged 14-17 have participated in some sort of nude sexting.

Maximizing the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of technology requires both education and monitoring. Parents and guardians should talk with their children about what’s appropriate as it relates to both content and daily use. Just as children must be taught not to wade where they can’t swim, similar instruction and supervision should accompany the introduction to computers, cell phones, television, and any other portals to inappropriate subject matter. Unfortunately, many adults are far less electronically savvy than most children. So it’s important to learn not only how to use the most modern devices but to keep up with what’s on them—and that’s a constant challenge!

The Department of Child Development at Singapore’s KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital offers six simple suggestions for using technology with children:

  1. Limit the use of TV, computers and mobile devices to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time. Ensure the total amount of screen time per day doesn’t exceed the age-group recommendations.
  2. Schedule an appropriate time for using the device, and plan fun physical activities for your child to engage in at other times.
  3. Refrain from putting TV and electronic gadgets in your child’s bedroom, and put away such devices after use.
  4. Observe ‘tech-free’ times such as during meals, homework and bedtime. In addition, you can designate ‘tech-free’ zones for your child such as in the bedroom, dining area and in the car.
  5. Teach your child early about the importance of moderation. Be sure to offer praise when your child demonstrates restraint in the use of tech devices and follows the rules you’ve set.
  6. Monitor access by using the device together with your child. Take this opportunity to communicate, interact and share family values.

Parents and guardians should talk with their children about what’s appropriate as it relates to both content and daily use of technology.

The Faris family intentionally does not have many ‘hard-and-fast’ rules,” observes Lori Faris, Children’s Center’s Human Resources Generalist. “But meals together are always a device-free affair. Meals are one of the few opportunities families get to truly connect with each other.”

“Other times we disconnect,” Faris notes, “are usually tied to a vacation spot without cell coverage—in the mountains or at the beach—when there’s no urge to check the phone and no disagreement about the need to. I really look forward to our time to talk and not look at a screen, not answer the phone or check a text. Those things can wait. The time and conversation together is what’s important.”

Among the many potential rewards for appropriate exposure and continued parental monitoring is empathy. According to a recent study conducted by UCLA and summarized in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, “sixth-graders who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers.”

Faris laments the limited amount of her family’s technology-free time. “I wish I could say that we have a regular tradition of allocating other time as device-free,” she confesses. “We did more when our son was younger, but it eventually fell by the wayside.  I enjoyed the device-free time as much for my husband and myself as for our son.  I do aspire to revive the idea.  I think it’s a really healthy goal.”

Taking breaks from technology is not only a healthy goal—it’s a necessity for children. But parents and caregivers also benefit by modeling the behavior they want their children to embrace. Learning to “tune out”—and doing so regularly—can be tough. But the cost is minimal. And the potential rewards are truly priceless.


Note: This blog is part of a periodic series describing simple things we can do to build a healthier world for children and families.