Helping Kids Balance Technology Fun with Life Responsibilities

A big criticism I regularly hear from parents at my office is the negative impact technology advancements have had on their children.  Granted, there have been countless benefits experienced due to technology, but concerned parents more regularly mention to me how their kids lose their focus and motivation to complete school work while playing on their phone, or spend too much time in isolation because they play video games for hours on end.  Kids have always had their distractions, even in times before the technology explosion we are witnessing today, but are kids more at-risk today because of the constant exposure and availability of technology?

Unique concerns around phones and video games

Two of the more obvious technology pleasures for kids are smart phones and video games.  Today’s smart phones are really just mini computers that happen to include telecommunications; and video games are so exciting and interactive for kids that they spend countless hours playing them (and often in solitude).  Neither phones nor video games are “bad,” per se, but they do have unique, specific characteristics that directly impact kids and their use of personal time.

Today’s smart phones provide kids 24/7 access to the world, be it through an endless stream of YouTube videos or constant interactions on Facebook, Twitter, and the like.  Unless one exercises a high degree of self-discipline (a challenge even for adults), kids now have a stop-gap for every dull moment in their life when they long for a distraction rather than tuning in to what they are supposed to be doing.

Video games have also changed, and not just with respect to the violent content that is regularly criticized.  Placing the debate about video game violence on the side for the moment, newer concerns have arisen with respect to the constant availability of online gaming and “open-world” games that can be played for an eternity.  Many kids become consumed by their phones and video games, and often at the expense of school studies and social interactions with friends in real life, not just through online gaming.

Focus, motivation, and coping with stress

When kids are focused on their phones and video games, they’re not focused on other things, including school work, social relationships, and engaging in other enriching life experiences.  As humans, we can’t focus on two different things at the same exact time, meaning that every time a child focuses on his phone or video game, he is unable to simultaneously focus on his homework (or if he does, the quality of homework will ultimately be greatly compromised because of split attention).

It also makes sense why some kids turn to their phones rather than studying, as smart phones provide a huge endorphin rush offering literally anything in the world to watch, read, or play.  Kids not only lose their focus while playing on their phone, but also lose their motivation for putting down the phone and engaging in mundane school work that they often don’t see a connection to, and therefore begin to disregard.

Finally, kids who spend time on their phones or play video games often enjoy a respite from the daily stress of life. Rather than worry about homework or preparing for a test, many kids would rather surf the web and temporarily forget about the stress associated with school.

Cohort differences

For those of us who lived before the internet, there were certainly distractions that steered us away from what we should have been doing, but we had nothing like the powerful phones and game systems kids have at their disposal today.  If you played outside a lot, your play was governed by sunlight that provided for a finite amount of play time.  Similarly, video game systems didn’t have games that went on forever (though many of us tried to play Pong for as long as possible!).

The reality is that until this generation, kids were limited to outdoor play and basic game systems, not technology that allowed them to surf the web endlessly or text until their fingers hurt.  Today, literally every minute of every day allows for kids to quickly engage with their phone or game system, and massive amounts of time can be doled away frivolously as a result.

What all this means moving forward

Forewarned is forearmed, meaning none of us should be surprised when we see phones and video games become even more fun and enjoyable (and time consuming) in the future. Hoping that phones and game systems will offer less incentive for kids to use them isn’t a reality, prompting parents to roll up their sleeves and look for ways to help their kids maintain a healthy balance in their daily lives between important obligations and life opportunities, and their phones and video games.

Depending on the age of your children, some of the ideas and tips below will help you work together to find a solution to the challenges of technology today:

  • Talk about the pros and cons with your kids.  Rather than painting a picture that cell phones and video games are bad (they aren’t), it’s better to help your kids understand the realities of their decisions.  For example, there are only so many hours in a day, and if you devote most of those hours toward video games, there won’t be any time left for studying.  Similarly, kids can be taught how the quality of their work becomes compromised when they try and split their attention (like while texting and trying to study at the same time).
  • Create expectations and limits.  Try and be specific with the time you permit your kids to use technology, and provide “bonus time” based on specific accomplishments (i.e. getting good grades in school).  Kids should also learn that their technology privileges can be revoked when grades suffer or other important life tasks are forgotten or overlooked.
  • Be consistent with rules.  If you determine phone usage time based on grades, and your child doesn’t deliver on grades, make sure hold your child accountable by limiting (eliminating?) use of the phone or video games.   This may sound simple, but I have had many families share with me how regularly they cave in and don’t hold the line with the rules that they previously set.
  • Try not to think in absolute terms.  As I mentioned earlier, smart phones and video games are not “bad,” but instead simply things that can distract kids from other important things in life.  Set rules, enforce the rules you set, and keep an open mind to changing your positions on things as kids grow and mature and show evidence that they can more responsibly handle technology.



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