How to integrate technology in a healthy and positive way
7 MINUTE READ
Of all of the changes to the experience of childhood over the last couple of generations, arguably none have been as well documented and debated in psychology as the rapid increase in personal technology. For those who can remember, the childhood experiences of tyre swings and pushbikes seems a world away from today’s childhood of personal phones, tablets and gaming devices.
Our own feelings need to be recognised when we examine this issue. We need to be mindful of the impact of nostalgia when we compare the changes in our children’s childhood experience to what we used to do when we were children. Often we look back on elements of our own childhood with the same soft, positive light as a polaroid photo – remembering only the positives of our experiences. However, even with the filter of nostalgia, there are more to our concerns regarding technology in childhood than a simple yearning for the ‘good old days’. There is a growing body of evidence about the impact of unmitigated personal technology use in children.
Concern for children
The concerns are broad. Concerns for children’s physical health, concerns for children’s social and emotional health, and concerns for children’s cognitive health have all been raised and studied to various degrees.
In relation to physical health, the incessant activity of social media and gaming, coupled with the ease of accessibility to these activities through personal phones and devices, has been shown to have a significant, negative impact on sleep quality in children and teenagers.1 In addition, the sedentary nature of technology use limits the amount of physical activity that would be typical for children.
Concerns at an emotional and social level are also common. The impact of social media in particular on self-esteem and peer relationships has been the focus of much attention.2,3 Adolescence in particular, which was already known for its high rates of social anxiety (a completely normal developmental phenomenon), has seen an escalation in the rates and experience of anxiety in this age group.2 Excessive gaming also appears to have a complicated relationship with aggressive behaviour.4 On any given day, there will be a child at my clinic who is experiencing significant aggressive behaviour towards his device, siblings and parents, which is fuelled, in part, by long hours of playing violent video games.
“On any given day, there will be a child at my clinic who is experiencing significant aggressive behaviour towards his device, siblings and parents, which is fuelled, in part, by long hours of playing violent video games.”
The cognitive concerns are also there. Many experts are concerned around the lack of sustained attention that children (and adults) need to engage in today’s technological world. In previous generations, children would have had to wait until mum and dad had finished watching the news before they could change the channel to watch cartoons. Now, limitless videos of increasingly short duration are available for children to scroll through. There is no waiting, or need for even mild amounts of effortful focus. Recent research suggests, too, that excessive screen time inhibits learning and increases the chance of premature cognitive decline.5
Clearly, our concerns for children in relation to personal technology are more than just a yearning for days gone by. So where do parents of the new technology generations go? How do we manage these challenges and recapture some of the best elements of childhood?
As is often the case with parenting, a proactive rather than a reactive approach works best. As Christians, this is a principle with which we are familiar. Recalling the Apostle Paul’s encouragement for us to “not conform to the pattern of this world”6, we are reminded to live in a way that is intentionally different to the culture around us. This principle guides our parenting. Instead of coming from a position of what we don’t want childhood to look like, it is much more helpful to come from a position of what we do want childhood to look like. Limit-setting and winding back technology use is even more difficult if there is no active alternative. As such, the first step for parents is to consider how they want family life to look and how technology fits within that.
An analogy that I often use in my practice is that of gardening (many a good analogy can be found in the garden!). It is one thing to pull out the weeds but another entirely to plant and cultivate what you grow in that space. Similarly, limit-setting is only semi-effective if we are not actively cultivating what we would like childhood and family life to look like. Without anything to grow in its place we are left with an abundance of weeds to constantly tear out.
“…limit-setting is only semi-effective if we are not actively cultivating what we would like childhood and family life to look like. Without anything to grow in its place we are left with an abundance of weeds to constantly tear out.“
Whether parents are currently or prospectively engaged in conflict over technology use at home, starting with what we feel is most important to family life and childhood is key to any behaviour change. I often encourage parents to take an inventory of what a typical week as a family looks like. Next, I encourage them to draft what an ideal week as a family would look like based on the core values of the family. From there we can begin to become more intentional with family life and work out how technology will fit in with this.
For instance, if time together over the dinner table is a core value, then setting limits about accessibility of technology at this time should follow, and be modelled by the parents. If playing together as a family on a daily basis is important then finding video games that encourage playing together could follow, while games that encourage solitary play would be discouraged. Similarly, if creating an environment where parents and children are interacting and comfortable around each other is important, limiting technology use to the central living spaces, and away from the bedroom, is important.
Every family is going to have slightly different values that they hold as most important to family life. However, there is a lot of crossover and some values should probably be universal. Limiting exposure to harmful material, unhealthy and unsafe social interactions, and protecting sleep are consistent across every functional family. As such, some of the limits with technology that prohibit it being kept in bedrooms should be consistent in all homes, as should installing monitoring and limiting software on all devices in the home. Again, the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in the letter to the church in Phillippi speaks clearly to these values when he writes: “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”7. There are plenty of video games, social media apps and videos that do not meet these criteria and should never be available to children, or adults for that matter!
I appreciate that limit-setting is a challenge for parents, particularly in the area of technology. Any discussion around integrating technology into family values is going to involve boundaries and limits. However, despite the urgency parents often feel, parents would do well to refrain from using a directive manner with boundary-setting when it comes to technology.
A collaborative approach where children are regularly given feedback on their responsibility and use of technology, and given the opportunity to ask questions of and give suggestions to parents, is recommended. This approach encourages children to see that parents are not simply there to be the “fun police” but to help children learn how to integrate technology into a healthy and productive life. It also provides an opportunity for parents to reward and provide further privileges for children who are managing technology use well.
It is possible for technology to enhance family life, but only if it is done intentionally and is led by the parents. The good old days of a childhood without personal technology are gone. However, there is no reason why our children’s own childhood can’t be just as good, even with a few more screens. Keeping our family values front and centre helps parents to stay consistent and create a home environment that integrates technology in a healthy and positive way.
Asher Morrison Asher Morrison is a clinical psychologist who specialises in supporting children and their families. Asher believes firmly in the value of families as the key component of any community, and as a reflection of the nature of God. When not working with families, Asher is busy with four children of his own who bring him and his wife abundant joy.
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- Bruni, O., Sette, S., Fontanesi, L., Baiocco, R., Laghi, F. & Baumgartner, E. Technology use and sleep quality in adolescence and pre-adolescence. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 11(12), 1433-1441 (2015). http://dx.doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.5282
- Woods, H. C., & Scott, H. (2016). Sleepyteens: Social Media Use in Adolescence Is Associated with Poor Sleep Quality, Anxiety, Depression and Low Self-Esteem. Journal of Adolescence, 51, 41-49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008
- Nesi, J., Choukas-Bradley, S. & Prinstein, M.J. Transformation of Adolescent Peer Relations in the Social Media Context: Part 2—Application to Peer Group Processes and Future Directions for Research. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 21, 295–319 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-018-0262-9
- Richard, J., Fletcher, E., Boutin, S., Derevensky, J. & Temcheff, C. Conduct problems and depressive symptoms in association with problem gambling and gaming: A systematic review. Journal of Behavioural Addictions 9, 497-533 (2020).
- Neophytou, E., Manwell, L.A. & Eikelboom, R. Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Neurodevelopment, Learning, Memory, Mental Health, and Neurodegeneration: a Scoping Review. Int J Ment Health Addiction 19, 724–744 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-019-00182-2
- Romans 12:2 – “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
- Phillippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”