Note: James Schroeder, Ph.D., HSPP, is a pediatric psychologist who specializes in treating children and young adolescents with developmental, social, learning, mood, attention, anxiety, and behavior problems. He practices at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, IN. An active member of and presenter for the Indiana Psychological Association, Dr. Schroeder is also a prolific author. He has published three books and writes a monthly column of online articles directed to parents and fellow providers who work with youth. He and his wife have six children.
DP: In your online column, Just Thinking, you frequently write about young people’s use of technology. Why is this topic of such importance to you?
JS: I think the main reason is that this issue is revolutionizing so much of what young people do and who they are. From how they communicate to how they learn to how they identify themselves, it has begun to change the landscape so dramatically in such a short time. Meanwhile, despite the changes, there are serious concerns about how this might be affecting their physical, psychological, social, and even spiritual health. For me, I worry that many of these changes are not only occurring so quickly, but without a real conscious, decision-making awareness to discern if what our youth are doing, and what we as parents are allowing, is a positive, or even tolerable, thing. I am concerned that much of the change is occurring just to keep up with the trends.
DP: In one of your columns (“Left to Their Own Devices”), you wrote about the impact of technology on the four primary dimensions of the human experience you mentioned above. Would you please summarize those insights for our readers?
JS: In expanding on this thought, I have noticed something interesting. When parents, youth, or even educators talk about what is better for our kids, they often couch the term “better” in regards to providing the following: greater ease and convenience, increased access to a wide variety of information, and more emotional, instantaneous experiences. If this is how we define better, then I have little argument that our youth have benefitted from the technologically immersive culture of today.
But if we shift the definition of better to mean in regards to their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health, then serious questions surface about whether the current technological trends are, in fact, better. I can pull a substantial amount of research from all of these domains that suggest that being immersed in technology (as many of our youth are) is associated with poorer outcomes. But as the technological culture has become the “monoculture” (see F.S. Michaels’ book by the same name), few seem to really be asking questions about whether the technological climate of today supports the health and well-being of our kids, and then being willing to act on what we are finding out.
DP: Parents often ask if teenagers can become “addicted” to online activities such as YouTube videos, gaming, or pornography. As a pediatric psychologist, how would you answer that question?
JS: If we are speaking with what we know about behavioral addictions, evidence seems to indicate the answer is yes. The word addiction itself can be a controversial word, but recent research has found that behavioral addictions (such as excessive internet or gaming use) looks neurologically very similar to substance addictions as it seems to tap into similar “reward centers,” and youth can also develop a clear tolerance, craving, and withdrawal that mimics a drug response. Whether or not we come to ultimately see overly intense technological use as addictive or compulsive or any other domain of behavior, it appears that this domain of behavior possesses many similarities, and can impair functioning, in many similar ways as conventional addictions.
DP: Surely there is a lot of good news about young people’s use of technology, too. Can you speak to that?
JS: The good news about technology goes back to both what I noted in the first paragraph of question #2, and also includes the following advantages:
Research shows that well-designed, age-appropriate, educational television can be beneficial to children over the age of two. Early exposure to these types of programs is associated with cognitive and academic enhancement (Kirkarian, Wartella, & Anderson, 2008). Exposure to educational programs and situation comedies that are targeted to youth can have prosocial effects by increasing children’s altruism, cooperation, and tolerance for others (Wilson, 2008). Studies suggest that preschool aged children are more likely to learn educational content when they develop a relationship with an onscreen character (Richert, Robb, & Smith, 2011).
Ultimately, technology allows information to be transmitted on a wide scale basis. It allows for immediate experiences and wide access to information that may be difficult to find. Technology allows information to reach groups (e.g., neglectful environments) who may not be getting education at home. It can be helpful for teaching skills to youth with particular conditions or disabilities (e.g., autism spectrum disorder). Technology can buffer negative effects of a dysfunctional home environment. For example, for boys of alcoholic parents, it appears to provide a place to detach from negative emotions.
Used strategically, and to supplement learning based on core social-emotional principles and hands-on experiences, technology can certainly be a great thing. But I do not believe the way it is being widely used for leisure and communication and distraction qualifies it in this way.
DP: It is becoming increasingly clear that parents need to monitor what their children do online. In many cases, though, parents may not perceive that they have the technological skills necessary to do so or struggle to respect their child’s emerging independence. Can you provide some specific tips or strategies that any parent could utilize to keep an eye on their child’s safe use of technology without creating endless battles?
JS: The first step begins with where and when parents allow their children to access technology. The more children can do it away from adults, and at times when they should be doing something else (e.g., late at night), the more likely the outcomes will be worse. Teens of today have no more need, or right, to talk or text on their phones away from their parents any more than the teens of my generation (who often had to stretch a cord around the corner into the bathroom) did even into the mid 90’s. It is simply that the technology provides them with a mechanism to do this, and suddenly we find many teens who claim that they should be the sole governors of their devices. The idea of privacy has been distorted by the advent of technology.
I believe that, if youth don’t abide by these rules, parents have a right to restrict until they do. Second, it is critical that parents institute regular time-off periods, including moratoriums from different devices, which are set throughout the week so that youth learn to do what they need to do without relying on the devices. Honestly, though, statistics don’t indicate that this is happening. For example, I have never had a parent tell me that their teens don’t need a good night’s sleep for many reasons. But recent research indicates that 85% of teens go to sleep with their phones.
Finally, I think it is important to consider how the idea of “monitoring” fits in with the most important roles of our life. There are many sound guidelines and mechanisms available to parents today in regards to monitoring what our kids do through various devices. But doing so can make us feel like we need an extra “parent” just to keep up with our myriad responsibilities. Being a good “monitor” is important when it comes to technology and youth, but being a good “regulator” (i.e., deciding what our youth needs to have at all) is of utmost significance here.
Ultimately, we as parents need to be honest with ourselves about whether what we are saying to our offspring is actually occurring. The wider the space between what we profess and what we do is, the more the family as a whole is at risk. Although youth may disagree with our decisions, if we can calmly (and consistently) explain why we are making the decisions we are with technology, I believe they will learn to accept our rules and still thrive.
DP: Let’s talk specifically now about youth with disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, or ASD/Asperger’s. Do these disorders tend to create any unique challenges, concerns or (more positively) opportunities for young people who have access to smartphones, tablets, and laptops?
JS: Technology for kids with ASD can go both ways. One of the best things about the current technological culture is that many good jobs have become available that utilize strong computer skills without a significant reliance on socialization and the like. Similarly, those with LD’s and ADHD are able to lock into certain areas of interest or potential careers that might line up with their strengths in ways that were not available before, or don’t demand long periods of focused effort. However, the huge concern is that many are diving into a virtual world that is so all- encompassing that it seems to be creating less motivation, and thereby less opportunity, to function well in the general public. Those with ASD of yesteryear may have always struggled socially to some extent (even as adults), but many were forced to learn how to at least interact with others in a functional way that provided for job stability, community, and a broader network of support. But now, with so much of the online world taking over, this natural, somewhat forced mode of learning may be lessening.
DP: Parents often have the greatest impact on their children by modeling the behaviors they wish to inculcate. In our frenetic, device-driven world, what can we adults do to model a healthy use of technology for our children or even our students?
JS: The answer to this question all starts with how we live, and how we can teach young people to be happy with less and not fear without having more. We can show them to turn off the TV and computer for extended periods of time. We can teach them by leaving our phones at home when going for a hike or playing 18 holes of golf. We can speak to them daily with no device in sight. We can show them how online work can be delayed for games of Battleship and Uno. Ultimately, how we live will be the greatest lesson for them. If our children see us tied to technology as if we couldn’t live without it, then be assured that they will inherit this belief. If our mobile device never leaves our hip, and we have to look down and respond to every text when it dings through, they will know no other way.
We can also show them how happiness can come in a most countercultural form. For my wife and me, it means that we have had one car for almost 10 years. Most days, I bike, run, or bus to work. I haven’t had a cell phone since college when she and I were dating. The cell phone that Amy has isn’t a smartphone. We aren’t on Facebook or any other social networking site. We don’t have cable or satellite television. We still have a conventional answering machine on our landline that led one of my friends to jokingly leave a message stating that “the 80’s called, and they want their answering machine back.” And we couldn’t be happier. Although I realize that this life may not seem appealing to many, I would simply remind everyone that up until a few decades ago, this life looked like a happy and successful one for billions. And I must admit that, as every day goes by, I am so, so glad that I don’t have a mobile device, and that a simple walk to the hospital or bike home is done in the silence of my own mind, which as I noted in one of my articles, may be the most important entity we are losing in the current generation.