Since 2000, Melissa Muller of Well Spring Counseling and Health has been working with children, adolescents, and families. So she’s been right in the middle of the ever-expanding world of technology and its new challenges. As our culture changes and technology becomes more and more a constant part of our lives, Melissa offered some advice in our August/September issue on fostering a healthy relationship between you, your kids, and their devices. Hoping to learn a little more? Here’s the rest of our interview.
St. Augustine Social: Do you have any age-related guidelines for when a child should have access to technology (whether that’s access to yours or buying them something of their own)?
Melissa Muller: There most definitely should be limits on children’s screen times. Technology has changed our world! It is unavoidable today that our children will use technology, but they do need to have some guidance in the tech habits they will develop. Kids need and expect structure and limits. This is an important area to be sure limits are set. There should be different limits for different ages.
Children birth to two years old do not need any technology. Screens at this age should be limited to talking to family on FaceTime or video. Developmentally, children at this age are working on social development and healthy attachments. When children of this age are not connected to technology, they have more time to play, explore the world around them, and develop healthy attachments to others. Instead of screen time read to them, do projects, or explore using all their senses.
Introducing children age three to six to an hour a day of technology is acceptable and can be an educational tool. Always supervise and do not use technology as a babysitter. Monitor the content children are watching or playing and be interactive with them. For ages six to nine I recommend supervised screen time up to two hours a day. Children of this age need to be involved in physical and outdoor activities too. Parents should always be aware of the content of what their kids are viewing or playing.
Children ages nine to twelve can begin to take some responsibility for their technology use. Although most children use excessively at these ages use is recommended to be capped at two hours. However, parents should still monitor content and closely supervise use. Once a child sees something inappropriate, online, it cannot be unseen. It is still very important for this age group to be interacting socially, mentally, and physically.
By the time the kids are twelve to eighteen they are wanting as much independence as possible but will still need guidelines and monitoring. Help them to make positive choices. If you are allowing social media, be sure to have passwords and monitor for appropriateness. Have family meetings to discuss and set limits and consequences of technology use. If teens are included for input on consequences, they can’t say they are too strict.
Are there any effects of technology usage on child development?
Appropriate use of technology can have a positive influence on learning when the content is monitored, and limits are set. It is when technology limits are lacking, when content is purposeless and inappropriate that we potentially see negative effects in social, academic, and psychological areas of development. When technology is used as a babysitter, as a distraction, or as a calming technique children may not learn to self-regulate or to manage their own emotions. Technology can become and unhealthy coping skill which makes it difficult to learn healthy ones. I see this a lot in adolescents.
With the rise of smartphones and social media, has there also been a rise in teen behavior and mental health issues?
Childhood disorders including ADHD, coordination disorders, anxiety, depression, and sensory motor disorders are on the rise. Some studies show that a factor in the development of these is overuse of technology. Children and teens are staying inside on technology which has changed the way they socialize. Overuse causes isolation which can lead to depression and anxiety or can exacerbate mental health disorders.
What do you see as the dangers of technology for children? On the flip side, what are the benefits?
There are both positives and negatives to allowing kids to use technology. When there are no limits on the use of technology the negative effects far outnumber the positives. The positives: Younger children work on developing their fine motor skills while playing games. The development of cognitive skills and the understanding of cause and effect may be enhanced while kids play interactive games. There are a lot of positive opportunities for learning when educational games are played. When kids learn technology use at home, before starting school, they will understand technology before it is used academically.
The negatives: Sitting in front of a screen promotes a sedentary lifestyle which studies show can lead to childhood obesity. When technology use is excessive kids do not play outside as much. Too much use also leads to isolation and changes in the way children socialize. They do not get the same social interaction which can lead to poor development of interpersonal and relationship skills. Children may develop less ability to focus because there is so much stimulation and content that is usually very fast paced leaving the child attempting to pay attention to lots of things at once. This may lead to difficulty with attention and focus.
Too much use of technology can interrupt the healthy sleep cycle. Harmful blue light emitted from devices causes headaches, irritated eyes and eye strain. The hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep is suppressed with overuse of technology. People of every age should not use devices at least an hour before bedtime to ensure healthy sleep patterns. In my house, all family members put phones and screens away at 9pm.
The most serious dangers are children and adolescents being manipulated into believing an adult online is a child. We all have heard the stories of what can and does happen. The worst-case scenarios are inappropriate online relationships, connecting sexually with adults, murder or suicides resulting from predators or cyberbullies online. Kids are playing online games with online people leaving them vulnerable to being manipulated by adults posing as kids. Know your children’s friends both online and offline.
Should there be limits on a child’s screen time? If so, what methods do you suggest for parents to implement these limits in their daily lives?
As I said above, there should be different amounts of time allowed for screen time at different ages. Parents should always be involved in monitoring screen time for kids at any age. I love the idea of family time with no technology present whether this is at mealtime or other time. I know one family that has an empty fishbowl by the front door. In the evening, when the family members come home, they each put their phone in the bowl for the evening. Each is then allowed to check their phone once, after dinner, and then must put it back in the bowl until morning.
All technology should be used in open parts of the home. Allowing kids to use their devices behind closed doors invites trouble. This makes it impossible for parents to observe what their kids are viewing. Computers should be in family parts of the home such as kitchens, living rooms etc. There are many programs that help parents monitor the amount of screen time and the content children are viewing. Use one of these. Make play time and outdoor time mandatory and a daily priority. Be sure your kids have play dates and are involved in outside, physical activities.
Adolescents are working towards independence and will argue with parents who want to monitor their social media or Internet content. In today’s world it is part of adolescent development to engage in relationships online. Social media can support social development when used properly. Try to find a healthy balance of monitoring and allowing them some room for privacy. There are a lot of dangers out there for this age group so if you suspect any issues monitor more closely. Have passwords and check for content randomly.
How involved should parents be in the time their children spend on the internet and on their phones?
I believe parents should be aware of what all ages of kids are doing on the Internet. Young children need 100 % parental involvement while their kids are using technology. Find educational games and programs to work on together. Co-view and co-play with your kids. Meet them on their level to understand what they are playing and viewing. Be sure to have healthy, ongoing conversations about technology with your children. Parents should always be involved in their child’s screen time use from setting limits on how much time they can use screen time to monitor the content of the screen time.
Are social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat really that dangerous for teenagers?
Social media has changed the way teens socialize. Social media is akin to what going to the mall used to be. Some studies have shown of the top social media platforms, Instagram and Snapchat do the most damage to teen’s mental health because they make a teen feel left out when posts show groups of teens hanging out together. This may cause isolation and depression, and makes individuals compare themselves to others unrealistically. Bullying takes place on these platforms, which worst case scenario can lead to suicide.
We have all heard many stories of dangers on these platforms. Yesterday, I heard two of these stories. I had a college student tell me she has been using Instagram to sell pornographic videos of herself to men she does not know for substantial amounts of money. I also heard about a family who was threatened to be murdered by a 13-year-old through their 13-year old’s Snap chat. Yes, there are dangers on these platforms.
What are some ways that parents can help their children manage and deal with negative experiences – like bullying – online?
Prior to children using technology independently it is important to talk to kids about cyberbullying. Let them know if it happens, they can and should come to you and that you will help them find a solution. Children may experience shame and embarrassment when cyberbullying happens. If you have talked to them about it, they may feel more comfortable coming to you if it happens. If it does happen to your child, reassure them with love and support. Have them take a tech break and sign off all technology accounts. Tell them not to respond or retaliate to the bullies as this may make it worse. Bullies try to isolate their victims, so encourage your child to seek support from friends and trusted adults. Make sure to block the bullies on phones and on all accounts.
On the flip side, how can you make sure your child doesn’t become a cyberbully?
Be a positive role model in relationships. Model and teach healthy ways to work out difficulties. Treat your child with compassion. Always communicate with your children, teach them about love and kindness to others, and be aware of their online life. By doing these things parents have a good chance of raising children not to bully.
What conversations should parents be having with their kids about technology and the Internet?
The best way to help teach children to be aware of dangers and problems on the Internet is to keep communication open and flowing about this topic with them. View content together and talk openly about the dangers of what they may come across on the Internet. Kids need to be aware of the dangers on the Internet as soon as they can navigate it independently. Communication is important. Be sure to talk to your kids about the dangers out there and encourage them to talk to you regularly about what they are seeing online. I always believe healthy communication can head off and solve problems in lots of areas of life, this is also true for the Internet.
Adolescents need to be continually reminded that what they put out on the Internet is never private. Whatever they put out there, even with privacy settings, becomes a part of their digital footprint and may follow them forever. This includes inappropriate texts and photos.
What are behavior signals parents can look for in their teens that might indicate an unhealthy smart phone / social media use?
Although use of the Internet and technology can not be avoided today, there are also problems with overuse, or over-involvement with smart phones and social media. Internet addiction is a real problem. Studies are showing changes in Dopamine levels with high Internet usage similar to drug addiction. Signs parents can watch for in their kids include; a need to escape, isolating with technology, changes in routine behaviors, lying about technology usage, breaking technology rules, anxiety over relationships, withdrawing from activities in favor of technology usage, irritability when use is restricted, neglecting sleep to be on technology, a slip in grades, and changes in self-care. As parents, be sure to set and enforce technology rules, do not allow usage in private areas of the home, and monitor your teen’s social media accounts.
How should I approach the subject of unhealthy social media consumption with my teen without causing WWIII?
The most important thing to remember is to be consistent with monitoring of technology use and to foster nurturing and communicative relationships with your kids so that they will feel comfortable coming to you if they find themselves in trouble on the Internet or social media. Begin to talk to your kids about technology when they are young. Do not make this topic taboo. Make it an ongoing and open conversation. Let your teen show you what he or she knows about technology. Let them know you will be monitoring them. Remind them the Internet is not private and whatever they put out there becomes part of their digital footprint for life.
I believe in and encourage healthy family meetings regularly. Make technology and social media an open and ongoing topic at these meetings. This is a great way to foster healthy and open communication with everyone in the family participating in the conversation and in technology family rule setting.
The Internet and technology certainly aren’t all bad though. So are there any ways that parents can use technology to strengthen their relationship or communication with their child?
Definitely! Find ways to explore technology together. Begin to talk about technology use early. Have older kids be involved in setting the limits and developing the consequences for breaking family technology rules. This helps kids to feel empowered! Technology is a tool; it is the responsibility of the parent to teach the proper use and consequences for improper use.
Melissa Muller is a licensed mental health counselor with Well Spring Counseling and Health. Learn more about them online at www.wellspringcounselingandhealth.com.