Tech-addicted kids? Then stop using your mobile phone as a babysitter

“What’s for dinner mom?” texts 13-year-old Sanjay from his bedroom upstairs. “Come down and find out,” an irate Latha,39, texts back, annoyed as she is with her elder son’s constant addiction to texting. “It’s a maddening situation,” she says. “We bought our kids smart phones so that they could plan their days better and understand how to use the technology. And yet, all they seem to be involved in is gaming, texting and tuning in to inane minute-by-minute updates on Facebook. I can’t imagine what it was like to have them pay full attention to me.”

If you’re parenting a millennial child, it is a rather commonplace complaint. We worry that our children are drowning in on-screen time from hand-held devices such as smart phones, laptops, tablets, Ipads and ipods, in addition to the traditional favourites that have always clamored for their time and attention–televisions and PCs . And it’s ubiquitous. Though the use of mobile phones are banned in schools for children below the age of 16 in most Indian states, 52% of the respondents in the Tweens, Teens & Technology 2014 report by the Internet security firm McAfee, admitted to accessing social media accounts while at school!

It’s a double edged sword–we tend to hand over tech devices to our toddlers and teens under the mistaken impression that we’re making their lives easier. We worry that unless there is early exposure, they won’t be well-equipped to deal with a pushbutton world when they grow up. Then we turn around and accuse them of being immersed in a narcissistic culture, consumed by these very same devices and placing no value on human bonding and interaction.

Blanket ban or digital diet?
Whether or not to ban the use of technology for under 7’s and severely restrict the use of hand held devices for under-10’s is something that is being hotly debated in the international arena.

Some parents argue that banning anything never works and is not the ideal way to parent. And there is the study by the Max Plank Institute for Human Development that establishes that some video games are actually good for a growing brain—increasing the size of the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills.

But in a recent article on Huffington Post, a pediatrician appealed to parents to never give handheld devices to children under the age of 12. The article cited research on how technology used during critical growing years causes huge developmental delays, tantrums, insomnia and more.

Ironically, schools like Waldorf in the heart of Silicon Valley have eschewed technology completely, reverting to old fashioned teaching methods.

But is tech really the villain that it is made out to be or is it our indiscriminate unsupervised use of it that is at the heart of our problems?

“It’s true that our kids are growing up in an increasingly digital world, but a blanket ban on technology would not be practical, advisable or even possible. It is the future, after all,” says Dr Dheep, clinical psychiatrist and the Chairman of Topkids Counselling & Holistic Personality Development Centre, Madurai. “Teaching children how to interact with gadgets responsibly is far better.”

Moderation is the key word say most educators. “Children can pick up good language skills, learn science concepts and with the right kind of children’s movies, even learn good manners and values,” says Meena Sethu, correspondent of Golden Gates and Emerald Valley Schools, Salem and a grandmother of three. “It can be used to augment learning and to keep themselves abreast of technology as they grow up, but cannot replace the human interaction the child should have with a teacher (or parent).”

Saying no to digital babysitters
Today, given our lightening paced lifestyle, face time with parents is on the wane. Most parents are turning to gadgets as high-tech babysitters. In restaurants, on planes, in social situations, a child playing games on an Ipad or a smart phone is a common sight. “While it ensures good behaviour with minimal parental exertion, this kind of parenting by proxy is very unhealthy in the long-term,” says Dr Dheep. “Physically, the child is quiet and engaged, but as they spend huge chunks of their time on these gadgets, at a mental level, there’s excessive and constant stimulation.”

Dr. Dheep says these children tend to be angrier, more impatient and used to instant gratification. “Also, these games serve only to foster a sense of unhealthy competition and underline a sub-conscious message—success at any cost. Destroy your opponent, mow over everyone in your path to move on to the next level. Little wonder then that we’re breeding a generation that naturally lacks in compassion!”

Moreover, the digital babysitter might keep your child quiet, but not necessarily safe.

Tech Transfixion–The Staggering Statistics
According to the Tweens, Teens & Technology 2014 report, one in three Indian youths are believed to have experienced online bullying. The sample survey, titled “How safe are Indian kids online?” was conducted by the market research arm Synovate of Aegis Group plc across 10 cities – Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ludhiana, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune, collecting data from 500 children and 496 parents.

A whopping 92% of these children admitted to risky behaviour, such as sharing their email, home address and contact details, posting something provocative or contacting strangers whom they first met online. 72% admitted to posting photos that were not their own or trying to appear older than what they were. In most of these cases, risky online behaviour resulted in added stress, anger, aggressiveness and embarrassment, traits that had the potential to become ingrained into their personalities.

Beating the boredom blues
”I’m bored,” is the phrase a millennial parent dreads hearing the most. But keeping your child immersed in tech toys isn’t the solution, say experts. Younger children tend to be better engaged in schools and as a result, are not looking out for their next app fix. “In schools, especially in the kindergarten, there is so much to do that the little ones hardly miss gadget-time. They have structured and free play, art activities, little projects, dance, music, nature walks– they never feel bored,” says Meena Sethu adding that they do have one computer class every week so that they learn the basics like using the key board and the mouse. Even if you can’t keep your children as engaged at home, it’s important to remember that a little boredom never hurt! ”I think it is healthy for kids to be bored,” says Hyderabad based Rasana Atreya, author and fiction writer. “That is when they are inspired to be creative. I remember being bored summer afternoons, lying on my back watching clouds scud past, making up improbable stories. I feel sorry for the kids of today, with no time to be bored!”

Finding balance and bonding
Keeping a child productively engaged (and not hooked to gadgets) in an era where technology has everyone on tenterhooks can certainly be a challenge for any parent. And finding that sweet spot with the use of technology in the household can often mean putting yourself on a tech diet too, even as you monitor your child’s on-screen activities. “I give my daughter the Leap Pad,” says Bangalore based Shweta Sharan, mother of 6 year-old Lassya and founding editor of the Affair, a literary journal. “It has games and apps that are quite educational, such as phonics and puzzles. Even this, I monitor stringently. She uses it only once a week.” Earlier, Sharan noticed that she would always be glued to her own phone. “When I woke up, the first thing I’d do was check my smartphone and boot up my laptop. Now I restrict my usage of these devices myself, because obviously, my daughter looks up to me and would want to use them too!”

“The key to good management of gadgets is to engage your child with fun family activities such as story time, sports, outdoor play, even visiting family and friends more often, so that the gadget becomes less attractive,” says Sethu. “Do we take our children to shop for vegetables, visit an old aunt, go to a temple or a village as our parents did with us? How many of us sit out under a moon and look for shooting stars? We hardly have time for these simple pleasures.”

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