When the July 23 issue of The New Yorker arrived on my desk this past summer, I chuckled like I usually do … and winced, too.  The cover depicted a family of four—a mother, father, and their two adolescent children—posing for a touristy photo, decked out in their t-shirts, flowery shirts, and flip-flops in front of palm trees and a turquoise ocean.  A seemingly perfect Kodak moment? Ah, but it’s not. All four individuals are in their own world, manipulating their smart phones and staring down at their screens, rather than at the camera.

Sadly, this scene is too familiar. And let’s face it, most of us parents (myself included) haven’t stayed ahead of the technology enough to fully monitor what all this screen time and social media is doing to our children. We need to turn that around.

A few rather stunning things to consider. The iPhone, which dominates many of our lives, didn’t even exist until five years ago. The iPad was released only two years ago. It’s no wonder most educators and parents do not have fully mapped-out plans to support healthy and appropriate use of technology among children.

Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of CommonSense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org), a leading nonprofit resource for parents and educators, and author of Talking Back to Facebook, has some advice for us, based on extensive research on children and teen consumption of media and social networking sites. For children in elementary and middle school, CommonSense Media offers these three practical ideas:

  • Set an endpoint: Decide what show or movie they will watch, and tell them at the outset that when it’s over, they must turn off the screen. Avoid allowing your children to channel-surf and move from one show to another. Ideally, pre-record shows to avoid commercials. With video games, be sure the game is appropriate for your child’s age, and set a time limit as to how long they will be allowed to play. Be strict when you set limits so that your child knows the end time is not negotiable.
  • Teach your children balance. By setting limits on how much screen time your children have, they learn to appreciate other activities.
  • Be a role model. If you’re looking at your smart phone during dinner, or thumbing through emails at a traffic light while your children are in the backseat, you’re not helping. Your children will either call you on your behavior, or worse, copy you. Show them that the adults in their life can also balance screen time with face-to-face time.

While it seems that as children grow into adolescence and their teens, they become more distant and more addicted to social media, the research done by CommonSense Media actually says the opposite. Most 13 to 17-year-olds prefer to communicate face-to-face rather than via texting, Facebook, email, etc. Research also shows that live social interaction, including face-to-face communication and physical touch, offers real physiological benefits. So the next time you’re feeling like the “uncool parent” for setting limits on your child’s phone, text, or screen use, be assured that you’re giving them what they need to be happier and healthier people.

Thanks to our PSPA Authors and Lectures Committee, CommonSense Media will be joining us again this year on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Save the dates!

Katherine Dinh
Head of School