Is it okay to text someone to invite them to the prom? To break up with someone by text?
Texting has become the preferred mode of communication for this generation of teenagers, the experts at the Child Mind Institute’s Spring Luncheon agreed, and it has some serious drawbacks, illustrated by the not-hypothetical examples above.
The subject of the luncheon was how technology is affecting our children and family life. Ali Wentworth, comedian, actor and moderator of the event, kicked things off by saying, “I’m a basic, relatable mom. And I have two kids who, I fear, are addicted to social media and their phones.”
Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, noted that whether or not the addiction model applies to technology, there’s no question that we are all psychologically dependent on our phones. These devices are so neurologically stimulating that we start to crave them, to miss them if we haven’t checked them lately. “We feel separation anxiety if we are not connected to our phones,” she added.
As to the drawbacks of communicating by text and email, Dr. Steiner-Adair noted that we don’t hear tone of voice, or see the impact of our words on the other person. And this has been linked to a drop in empathy and failure to develop social/emotional skills in this generation of adolescents.
Dr. David Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute and the panel’s other expert, noted that the impact on healthy development is related to how much time kids spend on screens. “When there are decreases in interpersonal skills it tends to be in people using them the most, or using devices in place of other things, ” he explained.
Dr. Anderson cited research that found that for kids who spent less than a third of their free time on screens, it’s actually mental health positive. “It’s a way of relaxing, it’s a way of connecting, taking stock of news of the day, news of your friends.” But for kids who are on screens more than two-thirds of their time, he said, it was mental health negative — resulting in decreases in pro-social skills and empathy, and an increase in depression and anxiety.
Among the topics of spirited debate was kids multitasking. Wentworth described finding her daughter, the evening before, doing her homework on one screen, texting on another, with Gilmore Girls playing on a third. “I have ADHD,” her daughter explained. “This is how I do my homework.”
Whether or not they have ADHD, Dr. Steiner-Adair noted, kids now are habituated to having a great deal of stimulation. “It’s hard to keep your mind focused and quiet on one thing,” she said, and she thinks it’s a very important thing to learn. When kids have three screens on at a time they’re not developing the ability to focus. “What I say to kids is, ‘You’re the boss of your brain. Your capacity to do one thing at a time is so important for creativity, for whatever you want to do.’ ”
Dr. Steiner-Adair urges parents to talk to kids about protecting themselves neurologically, about the importance of nurturing the capacity for creativity, for deep focus, for solitude. “One of the biggest losses we’ve seen in this generation in the last 10 years — and this is critical for human beings — is the capacity for solitude, to be quiet with yourself.”
The experts agreed that a no-devices rule is imperative for the dinner table — but adults have to follow the rule, as well as kids. And there was heated discussion of the pros and cons of taking away phones as a form of punishment. Wentworth copped to using it, as the only thing that seemed to get a serious reaction from her daughters. Dr. Anderson noted that “the effectiveness of punishment is not based on the level of emotional stress that it causes,” and he encouraged parents to have other alternatives in the arsenal — to keep the phone from being “forbidden fruit” — and to put more stress on recognizing and praising desirable behavior. Dr. Steiner-Adair noted that taking the phone away does send the message that corrective action is needed, and it has one other upside: “Kids actually learn that it doesn’t kill them.”