By Michelle Bostian, LCSW
Lower School Counselor for Greensboro Day School

Technology … a word that evokes both fear and awe. It is bigger than our understanding of it and it will always grow faster than we can possibly keep up. I myself, have little expertise when it comes to technology. I’m learning at a pace much slower than my children, but I suppose that makes me normal. The internet is a place I sense my own fear about the things that hardly ever happen but can, and yet is the first place I turn to for unanswered questions. So how do we live in a relationship with technology and role model for our children the appropriate way to do so?

As a counselor I see much of the aftermath of kids being exposed to things they weren’t really ready for. It could be as natural as the death of a pet. It might be a divorce. Generally it is things parents have little control to change the outcome. However, technology is different. Parents do have a great deal of control over how much children are exposed to the internet and how much of their daily lives interface with technology.

This may sound obvious, but children come to me disturbed about the images they see in movies. They are confused and unsettled about the violent caustic nature of the humor on TV. They are baffled and intrigued by the violence of video games. At times they are shocked by the images that present themselves without warning on their computer screen. Why don’t they turn their heads or close their eyes and plug their ears? Because they are children. Children are little absorbent sponges taking in everything we allow them to be exposed to in great detail. They know not how to turn off their natural curiosity. It is how they learn and grow. It is up to us as parents to filter what they absorb.

What we know about the brain and how it works tells us that even an adolescent brain doesn’t have much impulse control. That’s why they say mean things to their friends. That’s why we are teaching them about empathy. Children need to learn first how their behavior has an impact on others before they are allowed to have a behavior where they cannot see the obvious impact. When a fourth grader says to someone, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore”, the other child usually cries. Watching the person you just talked to cry has an obvious and important impact. Texting a friend a message about what a loser they are provides no immediate response to the sender and therefore does nothing to effect the impulse control and the behavior is likely to be repeated.

When should kids have cell phones, electronic devices with internet access, ability to send photos, etc? Well, we can’t really wait for them to have reached their potential for impulse control; they’d be in their twenties. And some people would be in their forties! So, we need to provide the filter. That means we, the adults, need to supervise and limit the use of such technology. We need to role model what we want to see in our kids. Don’t text while you are having a conversation with your kids. Don’t use your cell phone at the dinner table. Keep all technology devices under your supervision and control. Basically, I suggest parents have a simple household practice: Have your kids and their friends, especially until they are high school age, leave their cell phones, IPod touch, laptop, and anything else with internet access, in the kitchen. And when they ask why, have that very important conversation about the risks of the cyber world and the importance of an adult being present in that world. Issue a phone to your child when they need it, not when they want it.

Some families keep an extra cell phone and then issue it to their child when they travel on a sport team or will be in a situation without an adult and without a phone, like when they start driving. I’m pretty sure your child’s school has a phone for students to use when they need to and that their friend’s have a phone in their home they can use, too.

Last, tell your kids, it’s not good manners to go to a friend’s house and then socialize with other kids who aren’t present. Can you imagine? Would you go to your neighbor’s for a cup of coffee and then call your mom and sit on the phone? It just looks different with them. Susan goes home with Sandra and then text messages someone else. Not nice. But they don’t know that unless you tell them. If you do choose to issue your child a phone, tell them it is YOUR phone that they are permitted to use when you see the occasion for them to use it. It is not to be used at their discretion. This applies to any internet use as well. You provide their access to the resource of the internet when you deem it appropriate for them to have that access. You are their filter. Don’t step back. Step up.

Below is a link to an article by the American Psychological Association about how technology can sometimes interfere with learning and friendships.