The advantages of growing up in a digital world are vast. We can access information and connect to others everywhere we go, multitask (when we have to), and drive down the road while simultaneously playing a movie for the kids and receiving directions from our GPS.
There are also major challenges to living in a digital world. Today’s generation faces enormous pressure to develop an online persona, which can easily tip a developing mind into a state of worry about not being liked or not measuring up.
More broadly, as the virtual world grows in importance, events happening in real-time get pushed to the backburner. Beeps and flashing lights frequently interrupt face-to-face conversations, even with loved ones.
Why do we let this happen? Studies show the brain’s pleasure center secretes the feel-good hormone Dopamine when we receive a text notification, causing us to feel a burst of happiness and, therefore, rely on our phones to feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately, we tend to use our phones in place of activities that yield lasting happiness.
Here are a few suggestions for parents who yearn to raise emotionally and socially intelligent children. We need to encourage and, more importantly, model practices that balance online and real-world activity.
Play the awareness game. Next time you use your phone, take a few moments to notice the impact on your mind and body. Do you feel more or less relaxed? More or less tired? More or less focused? Many people discover that turning to their phones when under stress causes more stress. It’s also good to pay attention to the times you resist the urge to check. What helps with this? Invite your children to play the game, and initiate an open conversation about what you each discover.
Empower children to make wise choices. Team up with your children to discover ways they can build autonomous, disciplined relationships with their phones. For example, reach an agreement that mealtime and homework time are tech-free. Place a basket in a common room that temporarily holds phones during tech-free time. Be sure to affirm their willingness to make new choices.
Create fun, age-appropriate alternatives to screen time. No matter how old, all kids want to feel emotionally connected to their parents. Initiate a game of roughhousing or cook a new recipe with younger kids. Play a board game, baseball, or card game with tweens and teens.
Make online time interactive. When a child is in front of a screen, the parent is typically free to focus on something else (sigh). While this can be exactly what the doctor ordered, it can also be a missed opportunity. You could occasionally ask for permission to join your child in an online activity. Be curious and open-minded about what they’re learning, enjoying or struggling with.
All of us are learning how to balance online and real-world activities. Staying committed to practices that build healthy habits will lay a foundation for everyone in the family to increase awareness and self-control. None of us is perfect, so be sure to give yourself—and others—permission to make mistakes.
By // Breon Michel