Bridging the Gap – Parenting and Technology,  Part 2, by Randy Jo Hillier, LMFT

   Sherry Turkel in her book, Reclaiming Conversation,* discusses the importance of solitude and empathy.  It is through solitude that one can develop a stable sense of self and identity.  It is only when one is alone with one’s thoughts that s/he can truly tune in to a personal self and access one’s imagination and creativity. This then becomes an available part of one’s self.  According to Turkel’s research, most teenagers send a hundred texts a day, eighty-percent sleep with their phone, and forty-four percent do not “unplug ever.” Therefore their attention is always focused outside of themselves leaving little time to cultivate an inner life and internal experiences.


    If a parent’s primary role is to nurture, guide, educate, and enrich his/her children’s lives, the good news for ‘iGen’ is that technology has always been a part of these children’s and teens’ lives. Consequently, as new studies reveal that technology does effect the brain and is creating very different effects on children’s and teens’ social-emotional and cognitive development, there is increasing evidence suggesting that how the internet and social media are introduced and utilized can influence habits and attitudes that children and teens develop as they continue to engage in technology. This in turn will be of consequence to one’s mental health and well-being. There are websites and books now available to help parents prepare and understand how to engage with one’s children vis-a-vis the pros and cons of technology and the reasons for setting limits, as well as how to determine appropriate ages to allow for screen use for entertainment. When to purchase a smart phone for a young person and allow social media accounts to be set up in a teen’s name raises questions that parents have not previously had to deal with. Today parents are dealing with technology as an integral part of one’s life from infancy through adolescence.

         Becoming a “digital media parent” requires one to be aware of how one’s own relationship with technology is being modeled. One’s own behavior and attitude will set the tone for whether technology can be a positive source for learning and entertainment or a substitute for conversation, boredom, and responsibility. Parents who use the screen, whether it be a phone or an i-pad as what is referred to as a “pass back,” a pacifier to distract a restless or upset toddler or child, is sending a very unhealthy message, namely, “You don’t need to learn to manage your discomfort and uncomfortable feelings and I prefer not to deal with them either. So here is a screen to distract you and allow you to avoid dealing with what is presently going on.” This is an example of what could be a priceless teaching moment to help the child manage personal discomfort and learn other ways to self-soothe. Unfortunately, the moment is lost as soon as the screen is offered as a substitute.  Another example is using video games as a built-in baby-sitter for children. Since many of these games create high levels of arousal, it is similar to giving a child a drug that heightens the pleasure center of the brain, and subsequently, no other activity is ever as satisfying. Turkle points out, social media teaches performance, not authenticity. For the most part, many of those who are engaged with social media end up lonelier, and less happy, and feel as if they are missing out on activities with friends.

      The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published two policy statements titled, “Media and Young Minds” and “Media Use in School Aged Children and Adolescents.”  For children under the age of two, starting around fifteen months of age, the use of digital learning is only effective if parents or caregivers interact in the process and then re-teach the content of the material viewed.   Hands-on exploration and social interaction are necessary to teaching toddlers in order for them to flourish cognitively, socially, and develop language, and motor-skills.  It is important to recognize that digital media does not teach higher thinking skills, problem-solving, organization, and the follow-through necessary for school. Emotional control and self-regulation, creativity, and attentional skills are best taught through unstructured play and interactions.

     Additionally, it is important to be aware that the blue light emitted from screens interferes with melatonin production and causes shorter duration of night time sleep. It is further recommended that children between the ages of two and five should be limited to one hour per day of screen time and media use for entertainment and that it be limited to high quality programming with parent interaction.

     The primary concerns of American Pediatrics’ research on the benefits and risks of screen time and media use are outlined here: Children and teens are at a higher risk for obesity and over-weight than those who limit their television watching to two hours per day. Media use at night negatively impacts sleep, as mentioned previously, and using any type of technology 

 up to an hour before bedtime disrupts sleep. Children who overuse of the internet and video games are now at risk for developing “Internet Gaming Disorders.”  The use of media while engaged in academic tasks has negative consequences for learning. There is also an indication that  pre-teens and adolescents already facing emotional and social challenges who seek solutions to their problems on the internet are often exposed and can be influenced by dramatic, popularized forms of self-destructive behaviors such as self-injury and eating-disorders. Cyber-bullying and sexting are of additional concern.   

     Jean Twenge, discusses in her book, iGen,* the alarming increase in depression among eighth-grade girls around 2010, the same year the smart phone came out on the market. In her research, not only was depression seen as linked to the use of the smart phone, but other characteristics of iGen adolescents presented some interesting concerns. This is a generation that is growing up more slowly, not working at part-time jobs while in high school, and not getting driver’s licenses until later.  Spending more time at home on the screen and not interacting socially with friends and the world, has led to an enormous delay in preparing this generation to be independent adults. We are now hearing the noun adult used as a verb, as young people discuss adulting, which means learning how to be an adult.

     What we have gleaned from the research is that the opportunity for self-reflection creates vulnerability; and hence an opportunity to learn and internalize self-regulation, instead of turning to technology for distraction and the displacement of feelings. Parents need to be attuned to the type of role models they want to be, which starts with their own personal relationships with the way they spend time on-line and on the phone.  Parents need to develop a mindful approach to how they interact with their children and not be mediated by a screen. If they can simply be present with their children without any distractions, they will be better able to predict and be prepared to manage their children’s screen behavior, as they move through pre-teen and adolescent years.

     The next blog will address digital/media strategies to explore and develop interventions to adopt.

     *Turkle, Sherry, Reclaiming Conversation (New York: Penguin Press, 2015)

     *Twenge, Jean M., iGen (New York: Atria Books, 2017)


About the author: Randy Hillier has been a practicing psychotherapist in the South Bay for thirty-seven years, working with adults, teens, and children. Her new book, Teeneagram, Identity Search Made Easy offers teens, tweens, and parents a refreshing perspective on personality types and communication styles.