The future is here, and it’s confusing.
It’s not just the sheer amount of electronics that are available, from iPads to laptops; instead, the fact is that many of these gadgets are a two-sided coin: while they have plenty of benefits, they also contain significant downsides.
The key then, is not to ban tech at home altogether, but instead to set some ground rules and a framework for tech usage. There are three areas that parents can concentrate on: limiting screen time before bed, teaching children to avoid multitasking, and giving their children time and opportunities to unplug.
Limit screen time before bed
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study stating that daytime sleepiness in children is linked to bedtime use of electronic devices. In a survey of children aged 6-19 across North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia, researchers found that children who kept phones and electronics in their rooms were 50% more likely to get bad sleep.
The reason? Bright, backlit screens can short-circuit our brains, specifically our circadian rhythm, the natural body clock honed through millennia of evolution. Even a small, dim screen can emit enough light to suppress melatonin, the natural hormone that governs our circadian rhythm and tells us when to sleep.
The solution? Turn off your electronic devices at night, especially in your bedroom. The proof is in the numbers: the Sleep Foundation discovered that those who left their electronic devices on at night got an average of 7 hours of sleep a night, while those who turned off their screens slept, on average, an extra hour a night. While it may not seem like much, it can mean the difference between your child being alert and attentive in class, versus sleepy and disengaged.
Instead of letting your children text and play games until the last minute before they sleep, give them other bedtime rituals: read a calming, soothing story, have them take warm baths, or drink warm milk. There are plenty of ways to improve sleep hygiene.
Teach your children to avoid multitasking
Despite popular belief, there’s actually no such thing as multitasking, where computers (and people) simultaneously juggle multiple tasks at once. As scientists have made very clear, human brains can’t actually multitask: what we do instead is to switch between multiple tasks very rapidly, exhausting the brain, draining productivity, and believe it or not, worsening our own mental abilities in the process.
The biggest problem of multitasking, aside from quickly exhausting its subjects, is its tendency to degrade and ruin your productivity. In one study by Stanford University, researchers discovered that among 100 students, those who multitasked heavily, switching between homework, music, and social media, were more easily distracted and sidetracked. In fact, scientists found that even heavy multitaskers couldn’t multitask properly, facing trouble when they tried to go back and forth between responsibilities.
Things have gotten so bad that experts estimate the average human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 (before the popularization of cellphones), to about eight seconds today; we’ve reached the point where humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish.
The solution? Emphasize single-tasking, rather than multi-tasking.
While children will always want to chat on Facebook, watch television, and study at the same time, do your best to cut out distractions for them by building a consistent, logical set of rules concerning homework. This includes creating a distraction-free space, drawing up a schedule that limits digital use to certain times, and, when doing online assignments, only keeping relevant browser tabs and apps open.
For those whose children may be a bit more stubborn, there are also a number of fun online challenges that will help show them the futility of multitasking. If you have time, this can be worthwhile as well: nothing can humble someone faster than shaking a belief that they thought to be ironclad—in this case, your child’s belief that multitasking is positive, beneficial, and most of all, achievable.
Put some high stakes on the line (such as the loser doing dishes for a week), and you have yourself a guaranteed victory.
Teach your children to unplug
It’s the great irony of the internet age that, even as we are more connected digitally, we grow further apart (and lonelier) physically. True, part of the loneliness stems from the structure of our modern lives, from living in smaller households that are further and further away from our extended family and close friends.
Still, much of it is undeniably digital in nature, as social media allows us to broaden our social networks—at the cost of the depth and warmth of relationships. To paraphrase Stephen Marche of The Atlantic, though it might not be clear whether the internet makes people lonely (or whether the lonely are more susceptible to withdrawing online), the effect is the same: loneliness can ruin your health, leaving you vulnerable to anything from the common cold to dementia.
The solution? Teach your children how to unplug early, so that they can build good habits sooner rather than later.
From taking time out to go outside on walks, hikes, and bike rides to scheduling screen-free activities with friends, it’s quite easy to encourage children to leave behind their gadgets, if not for a day, then at least for a few hours daily. Along with the ability to say no, it’s important to exercise their creativity: for instance, rather than giving your children dollhouses and toy airplanes—why not have them build one from a kit? Instead of letting them play a role-playing game online, why not have them draw treasure maps of the neighborhood, and get their friends to go on a scavenger hunt?
Ultimately, your kids will be fine without their smartphones, so long as you keep in mind that humans haven’t had screens for most of our history. However beneficial technology may be, using it without considering consequences and limits will, in the end, only hurt your children.