I was recently approached by my brother and sister-in-law about the most important parenting conversations they should be having as they prepare to become parents in a couple of months. I think I surprised them when my response was, “Have you talked about electronics?”
In my office I see individuals of all ages, and the use of electronics is almost always a topic of conversation. While advances in technology continue to offer amazing new opportunities and a plethora of knowledge, one of the major downsides of electronics is the individual’s inability to balance screen time with daily functioning (and I am including adults in that statement).
So why do I think this is an important conversation to have with your partner before your children are even born? Simply put, the use of electronic devices is interfering with the development of emotion-regulation skills in children. Emotion regulation deals with an individual’s ability to respond, inhibit, or modify emotional responses to a trigger or situation. These skills are essential to managing every area of life.
In order to manage emotions, individuals need to develop a wide assortment of coping strategies that work effectively in a variety of situations and in response to an array of stressors. The use of electronics has become a primary coping strategy for many individuals of all ages. In a way, electronic devices have become a pacifier for young children. However, unlike the pacifier, electronic devices increase in popularity over time.
While it is incredibly tempting to hand over a phone or show a video while at an appointment, while running errands, or to end a temper tantrum, I encourage parents to think twice before resorting to this method. The long-term effects of self-soothing with electronics can be significantly harmful.
What happens when that child becomes a pre-teen or teenager? Often the consequence for poor behavior is the removal of electronics—a mixed message from their younger years when they were given electronics to self-soothe. For many, the use of electronics has become their core coping strategy, and lack of access leads to an inability to manage their emotions appropriately. Furthermore, electronic use reinforces defenses such as denial and avoidance (coping strategies that remove individuals from the difficult or challenging situation, stressor, or interaction) instead of helping them problem-solve how to address the issue. This limits their ability to overcome adversity in the present moment as well as in the future.
So, as parents, what can we do? Set strong boundaries from the beginning. Take the time to think about immediate concerns as well as future challenges. In the early years of children’s development, many parents do not worry much about limit-setting because they are more in control of the devices their children are using. Start setting limits that will make it easier to enforce boundaries later.
For example, if an iPad was always in your child’s room from the time he or she was a toddler, why would that child as a teenager expect the phone to be anywhere else? Be clear with all childcare providers (e.g. grandparents, babysitters, aunts, uncles, daycare, etc.) about expectations around electronics use. Be specific with respect to how much time (daily and/or weekly) the use of devices will be allowed. In addition, always remove electronics from sleeping areas. Be clear about times or situations in which electronic devices are off limits, and this includes adults as well. Lead by example. Always use passwords so children can use devices only with your permission and supervision. Don’t make a habit of using electronics to help calm your child, except for rare occasions.
As children move into adolescence and start having access to their own devices, evaluate and communicate the limitations around electronics. There are many helpful screen-time contracts to assist parents in conversation with their children at different stages of life. These contracts are useful in laying out common guidelines and expectations before a negative event. As children develop good habits, contracts may be evaluated and revised.
None of these suggestions may feel urgent to the overwhelmed and exhausted parent. However, setting boundaries on the use of electronics now will help assure the health, safety, and overall well-being of your child later. Be proactive, stay informed, and remember that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”
Katie Kurivial, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist at The Willow Center and can be reached at 419-720-5800. ❦