Media Rules: Healthy Connections in the Digital Age

By Wanda Whitehead

I recently attended a talk by Catherine Steiner-Adair hosted by Challenge Successes on the Stanford campus. Catherine is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist who has been researching the impact of technology on children, families and society. Her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, is the best in the field. I took notes and here they are.

Ms. Steiner-Adair begun with a shout out, “Media Rules!” Looking a little more closely led to different ways of understanding this exclamation. Media is cool, awe-inspiring. Or, we should know and share safety rules for media. Or, media rules our lives. All are true!

Below is a summary from my notes of main points made in the first part of her presentation:

  • There is an interesting paradox between staying connected 24/7 as never before and the diminishing quality of connection caused by these devices.
  • There is a loss of boundary between work and home that is impacting family time and connection.
  • The web is an adult world, children 10, 11, 12 are not ready psychologically and emotionally to enter this world.
  • Parents often cannot see their own addiction and suffer real separation anxiety with their devices just as toddlers do with separation from their “blankies” and bears.
  • When parents are on their devices, children suffer loss of connection and a sense they are not as important as the unknown person on the other side of the phone.
  • In the last 9 years there has been greater change in attitudes in two norms: the first, the interruption of conversation (every ping interrupts.) AND second, frequency and depth of sadness, anxiety, depression in children. They can’t seem to get or hold their parents’ attention. This huge spike in anxiety and depression that can be traced to overuse of devices.
  • Phone/texting- is a stimulus-craving experience.
  • Empathy and listening skills have decreased and are measurably linked to device use.
  • Texting hijacks the prefrontal cortex. The science shows humans really can’t multi-task and pay the attention needed to two or more things at the same time. We can phase back and forth to some degree, but cannot give full attention to two things simultaneously.
  • Texting and driving – parents think and often say to their kids: “this is important,” “don’t tell your father,” “I am an excellent driver and I can handle this,” “tell me if you see a cop.” Sound familiar?
  • Parents need to look at themselves to see what they are really modeling for their kids.

Through short skits during her presentation, Ms. Steiner-Adair emphasized these extremely important guidelines for the use of our many screen devices:

NO DEVICES in the Car, at the Dinner Table, or in the Bedroom.

Why not in the car? Cars are a great place for conversation. Using a device demonstrates that the child is less important than this person on the phone.

Why not at the meal table? People’s ability to stay in conversation decays with devices there. The meal table is a perfect language lab to develop conversation.

Why not in the bedroom? Sleep deprivation, difficulties in monitoring screen use. Blue screen and quick changing lights on the screen block the brain from making melatonin. Melatonin is essential for sleep and healthy brain waves for rest and relaxation.

Ms Steiner-Adair gave specific advice to the adults in the audience to replace cell phone use in the bedroom with simple alarm clocks. Give yourself time to wake up and consciously process how you are before the outside world comes into your day. Prevent the cell phone “world” from eroding the first relationships of the day with your partner and children.

  • Non-academic time on screens for teens averages 9 hours a day- let this soak in!
    9 hours, more than a third of the day…
  • Everyone struggles with self-regulation, adults and kids
  • 56% of students will say they are addicted. On average a teen checks their phone 60-100
    times a day.

What is happening to the brain in all of this, particularly for youth and teens? Our children are developing very different brains with diminished neurological pathways. The quick changes in screens exhausts the brain, diminishes thinking capacity and the development of neurons. The dopamine released in this high stimulus situation creates “feel good” experiences particularly more intense for teens. This sets the stage for any behavioral or substance addiction, not just screen addiction.

Social Networking is creating 24/7 drama resulting in drops in grades, self-esteem issues, damages to short term and long term memory. Studies show that when there is a device interruption in studying, the student loses the last 9 minutes of what was studied prior to the interruption. So if the ping is happening every couple of minutes….

Our children will say: Texting is a needed break from studying. Fact: Texting is not taking a break for the brain. It is a stimulus that seems like a boost but is actually the opposite.

Social Media:

  • A very real challenge for Middle school and High school students is they get little BREAK from DRAMA because the social media they are on is full of the constant emotional ups and downs from other adolescents.
  • Social media is a place where values may not be those of the family. It can be a culture of humiliation, bullying. With their anonymity they may behave irresponsibly and can be incredibly mean.
  • Do not text kids during school. It can be a huge anxiety issue.
  • The average age of a child receiving a smart phone is now 10 years old.
  • 75% of students by the 7th grade have been exposed to porn.
  • Online dating/hooking up increases the possibility for dangerous situations.
  • Students say that with social media they can act like they don’t care, can say whatever they want, or are indifferent to the feelings of others.

Ms. Steiner-Adair clarified that students can use social media well, that today’s children are very globally minded, and a large percentage of time is spent positively. Parents need to understand how to help them with the significant percentage of poor use.

What to Do to Help Students

  • Be a good role model, self-regulate, show what you really value.
  • Teach students about the effects of digital devices on their brains. We teach about brains on drugs, but neglect a very real danger for the developing brain. This real information will come in handy when they develop their own self-regulation around devices.
  • Teach a curriculum of HOW TO BE YOUR BEST SELF IN THIS DIGITAL AGE.

Specific Solutions:

  1. PDF time: Play time, Down time, Family time with no screens
  2. No devices after 9pm for teens/adults and earlier for younger children
  3. Have students set some of the rules around self-regulation of devices
  4. Take the phone out of the study space or check the phone in with parent when studying
  5. REAL books before bedtime is very calming
  6. Homework is not productive after 10pm
  7. Teens need 9.5 hours of sleep every night, essential for growth, development and
    emotional well-being.
  8. Parents must follow through on the limits set, which can be hard when the parent
    themselves can’t regulate their own use of devices.

For more of the science behind this information read Dr. Steiner-Adair’s book mentioned above. She shares more ideas on how to create a balance in the family that preserves family relationships and the natural development of your child.

Media Rules: Healthy Connections in the Digital Age, Fall 2016. Now available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCQ1rzg9lSI

 

About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).

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