Tech and kids

Dr. Susan Bauerfeld shares tips for parents on how to manage it

Dr. Susan Bauerfeld

Dr. Susan Bauerfeld

With summer vacation in full swing, young people may find themselves with many hours of free time on their hands. Many will likely turn to technology for entertainment.

With the use of electronic devices and social media on the rise, Susan Bauerfeld, a licensed clinical psychologist in Wilton, said it is important for parents to be aware of its impact.

“I believe the most significant impact is that extended time with media — particularly passive viewing of media — limits time for free play and face-to-face interactions,” she said.

“Free play and face-to-face interactions are the richest environments for the development and practice of language skills and executive function (EF) skills.”

In order to manage their use of media in a healthy manner, Bauerfeld said, children need to have EF skills.

“Making some media-free down time, time for creative free play and time for face-to-face interactions a priority is critically important for developing children,” she said.

“As media creeps in, if parents engage with the media alongside their children and discuss the content — as well as how to stop and start, when to play, et cetera — they can mitigate some of the adverse impacts.”

Bauerfeld said children under the age of two are “particularly affected adversely by prolonged exposure to media” because it interferes with face-to-face interactions, which profoundly benefit language and cognitive development.

According to Bauerfeld, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of recreational media use.

Because of this, she said, “the issue of balance and self-regulation with media is far more important than strict adherence to a rigid time limit.”

Bauerfeld said the later children are introduced to technology, the better — and not before the age of two.

“Once introduced, it is helpful for parents to be actively engaged alongside their children when they are using media,” she said, “and to have an ongoing, explicit focus on teaching how to manage the media and its content.”

Although it is “alarming how much time children are spending with media,” said Bauerfeld, “media is here to stay and we must figure out how to manage it in healthy ways, rather than focusing on the alarm and potential threat of it.”

Effective rules

According to Bauerfeld, effective rules for media use:

  • Focus on the process of self-management.
  • Keep the child’s skill level in mind.
  • Include the child as part of the process.

“With younger kids, this means more monitoring and parental controls because they do not have the requisite skills to make healthy decisions in an unmonitored technological environment,” she said.

“It also means actively using technology alongside children to help them develop the skills they will need to manage what they will encounter.”

As children demonstrate their skill level, said Bauerfeld, “parents can gradually allow for more independence.”

Ineffective rules

When parents “demonize the devices, games and social media sites and devalue the importance of them to kids,” Bauerfeld said, the rules they institute and try to enforce are likely to be ineffective.

Under these conditions, Bauerfeld said, “rather than focusing on why it’s important to have some structure and rules around using media,” children are more likely to become focused on:

  • How much their parents don’t understand.
  • Their anger toward their parents for the restrictions.
  • Ways to get around the rules.

“By acknowledging the importance of the activity to the children — even if parents don’t agree — parents gain much in the spirit of cooperation and are more likely to be able to teach the skills that kids need in order to manage their time with media in a healthy way,” said Bauerfeld.

Another common rule-making mistake parents make is “instituting a rule that children will have trouble complying with due to a lag in the development of the skills required to comply with the rule,” said Bauerfeld.

For example, she said, if a child has difficulty with self-regulation and time management, he or she will have difficulty complying with a rule that requires monitoring time on a game or social media and smoothly disengaging from it.

Instead of enforcing a rule that a child has trouble complying with, Bauerfeld said, “parents need to craft rules with developmentally appropriate expectations in mind.”

“A rule more focused on the process of learning how to monitor time while using media would be more effective than a rule that requires the monitoring of time while using media,” she said.

EF skills

Effective media management requires skills like time management, emotional regulation and organization, said Bauerfeld, “which fall under the heading of executive function (EF) skills.”

The prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for EF skills — is not fully developed in a typical brain until the age of 25, said Bauerfeld.

“It is important for parents to be mindful of this so that their expectations of their children are age-appropriate, and so that they can be more actively involved in and focused on teaching children how to do things,” she said.

“Too often, parents focus exclusively on what they want children to do and expect that ‘the how’ will naturally and automatically follow.”

Although it is important to be mindful of guidelines and communicate clear expectations regarding time and content, Bauerfeld said, tending to children’s abilities to manage themselves with media is “ultimately more important” for their well-being.

“Parents do well to focus more on the ongoing process of being actively involved in teaching their children the skills required to manage their media use,” she said, “and helping children to practice those skills than on the specifics of time limits, content, et cetera.”

Positive impacts

Technology may have its downsides, but it also has its upsides, such as providing children with access to “rich resources” at the touch of a finger,” said Bauerfeld.

“When they use technology to enrich their experience and expand their knowledge, within appropriate arenas, it can be a wondrous thing,” said Bauerfeld.

For example, she said, “many games teach and help develop valuable skills like hand-eye coordination and economic skills.”

Bauerfeld also pointed out that “in an era where kids have fewer places and opportunities to ‘hang out’,” social media can provide them such opportunities to stay connected to their friends.

“‘Hanging out’ is an important task for the development of teenage social identity,” said Bauerfeld.

“With appropriate structure and management, hanging out online can be a very positive experience and developmentally important activity for tweens and teens.”

To learn about Dr. Bauerfeld and her private practice, visit: susanbauerfeld.com.

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