Technology has become the new battlefield for parents, teachers, and teens. Regular conflicts arise over content (what the kids are doing on their devices) and context (when they’re doing it!).

Content Issues

Ever since the arrival of Facebook in 2004, youth (and adults) have used apps in naive and dangerous ways. Reputations have been harmed. Lives have even been lost.  Tinder, Kik, Snapchat, Ask.fm, as well as old favourites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all offer more than enough risk to give any parent grey hair, and to cause endless family conflict.

According to Intel Security’s 2014 Tweens, Teens, and Technology report, over 67% of tweens and teens have social media accounts. 20% of our children have talked online with a stranger, and 6% have actually met that stranger in person. Other research indicates that about 28% of teens admit to sexting, while close to 50% of teens have been cyber-bullied.

While content is a big issue, and one we must be vigilant about, context may be having a similarly significant impact on our children.

Context Issues

In a Pediatrics editorial, researchers have reviewed the limited data about context, and argued that young kids playing with devices are potentially having their development stunted. They identify research that points to concerns around children’s

  • self-regulation,
  • empathy,
  • social skills,
  • problem-solving skills…
  • and the simple ability to handle being bored!

You can read more here on the potential dangers of screens and young children.

Moving to an older demographic, another new study out this week from Catalonia points to a significant negative relationship between time on devices and high-school student grades. That is, as time online goes up, grades go down. Researchers observed a linear increase in school failure in relation to an increase in the hours spent on the computer. School failure was at 17 per cent for those who use it one to two hours; 20 per cent, two to three hours, and 29 per cent if they use the computer for more than three hours a day. Interestingly, as computer time increased, so too did the likelihood of alcohol consumption and marijuana usage.

But don’t take the phones off the kids! If you do, the same research (from Catalonia) indicates school failure rates are around 27%! Additionally, there is evidence that some of our students might suffer from cell-phone separation anxiety. Researchers have found that when we remove devices from our kids, they struggle to concentrate, are distracted, and the effects on their ability to concentrate and reduce anxiety are negative. Cognitive performance declines and heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety go up.

We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Lastly – research is suggesting that screen time in the bedroom is particularly problematic: kids who have devices in their rooms are sleeping less, sleeping more disturbed, and suffering as a result!

Summary

In spite of the mixed research that suggests both benefits and concerns related to our children’s time on devices, the weight of evidence suggests caution. With ubiquitous access to devices, parents and teachers should seek to do the following at a minimum:

  1. Keep kids off devices before bed
  2. Keep devices out of rooms at night, or insist on flight mode being activated (and turn off the house modem)
  3. Allow children under 2 minimal (preferably zero) access to devices, and children under 5 will ideally have no more than 30 minutes a day.
  4. Be involved, ensuring teens are doing what they ‘should’ be doing on their devices, rather than messaging, you-tubing, and gaming.
  5. Reducing control on our part, and encouraging and guiding children to make wise decisions about device use autonomously.

So should our children be “on”, whether it’s online, on games, or on social media?

The answer is that it depends. It depends what they’re doing, and it depends when and where they’re doing it.

Justin Coulson PhD