How To Raise Wild Children In The Age Of Tech (Hint: Put Down Facebook)
In working on this Wild Child series, there was one very modern elephant in the room: How does technology play a role in child care? Of course there's the very general question of how much screen time is appropriate and at what age? How do you foster hobbies and interests outside of technology, especially when their friends have access to it? How should you, the parent, engage in technology when around your kid? And then there's the layer of when does giving kids access to technology act as a means for their safety?
These are hard questions for any parent to deal with if you are a parent who strives for mindfulness and fostering a love of nature. It all seems at odds with each other, no? And unfortunately there aren't hard-and-fast rules we can give you at this time: Technology just keeps on evolving, and the research about what it's doing to our brains keeps on rolling in. But there is information we can share, from experts and available studies. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it really all starts with the parents' behavior.
Distractions dull overall enjoyment.
If you find yourself reaching for your phone during family dinner, you're not alone: In a recent study published in the journal Child Development, only 11% of parents reported no technological interruptions. But in that same study, the data showed that parents' technology behaviors can lead to behavioral issues like oversensitivity, hot tempers, and hyperactivity.
Another study suggests that parental predictability is what's key, and interruptions (perhaps that come from checking emails or Facebook) can affect brain development, especially with pleasure sensors. "Ideally we want to raise kids that enjoy things, whether that's nature or otherwise," says study author Tallie Z. Baram, M.D., Ph.D. "Imagine a mom interacting with her child: She holds a toy up, sets it on the table. She holds another toy up, sets it on the table. She's engaged with the toys and looks excited; the kid is going to be engaged and their pleasure system will respond." And when you disrupt this interaction, it's perhaps showing the child that this isn't interesting or rewarding enough to stimulate pleasure.
One tip from Jessica Abo, parent and author of Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look on Social Media: Delete your social media from your phone or at least move it to the last screen, so it's not as present. Also: Turn off all non-urgent notifications. "We have started creating this phantom buzz in our heads, so we think that someone is commenting on our Instagram or messaging us and we imagine a buzz, but it's not there. It just an element of FOMO. And so you've caused this distraction for no reason."
They'll learn they should never be tech-free.
One of the positive aspects of technology might be that parents can feel like they can be instantly in touch if something happens. This, of course, is likely comforting to many adults. (How could it not be? You're just one call away from any issue or accident.) But an unfortunate side effect: You're teaching them that they should never be without a cellphone. Think about your own behavior: Do you ever find yourself wishing you could just leave your cell at home and go offline once in a while? Your kids deserve the same feeling.
"The thing is, even if a kid is going off to do their own thing, they are given a smartphone so the parent can micromanage and be in constant communication," says licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS. "The parent is likely always in contact with them, 'What are you doing now?' 'Is everything OK?' so even if something comes up, the kid doesn't have the opportunity to figure it out themselves." If it's a low-risk scenario—think walking to your neighbor's house to play, visiting the local pool—they're likely OK to venture out on their own, sans phone or digital monitoring. If this causes stress just thinking about it, just reconsider your own childhood: "What did you do when you were a kid?"
There are plenty of ways to create tech-free interests.
We've recently talked about teaching your kid to love nature: Same applies to kids who enjoy screen time. First, make sure you are enthusiastic about what you are introducing them too—be it a hike or gardening—limiting your own distractions, of course. Then prioritize your tech-free time by scheduling ahead: Maybe you realize that not checking email is unrealistic during work hours, so don't schedule your nature time with your kid when you'll be expecting your cell to be buzzing. If your kid is showing resistance to screen-free time, take cues about what they're enjoying about technology. Is it a video game with tasks and puzzles? Create an outdoor scavenger hunt with similar elements. Do they like Instagram? Take them on a hike with a real-life camera.
Tech may be unavoidable, but make sure it's not everything.
We don't suggest that you need to rid your home of all screens and banish your cell forever: That's just not the world we live in anymore. Technology is available, present, and, yes, even necessary in the modern world. And here's the thing: Your kid is going to come into contact with social media regardless, so it's important you lay the groundwork for their mental health now.
"One of the biggest things I tell parents, is to find activities that get your kids outside with you so they can find achievement outside of social media," says Abo. "They need to have a sense of purpose that isn't tied to their phone. Take going on a hike: Getting to the top of that hill using your own body and muscles, with your own sense of determination and achievement—make sure they know that there is no amount of 'likes' in the world that will compare to that feeling. They need to value themselves and their own bodies over likes."
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