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When family time becomes gadget time

How to raise kids and teach them to navigate through the Digital Age

By Michele S. Alignay, MA, RP, RGC

LOOK, MA, NO GADGETS The author with children, Maia and Migo

LOOK, MA, NO GADGETS The author with children, Maia and Migo

“I’m bored!” “It’s so hard!” “I don’t know what to do!” These are some of the most common complaints we hear from children and teens these days. More often than not, they have something to do with kids being weaned on gadgets at an early age. When a child starts throwing a tantrum or begins to move up and about, the first impulse of many parents is to give him a gadget. And just like magic, his mood changes and peace, albeit temporarily, reigns, as the young one disconnects from the world around him and focuses on the screen before him.

At restaurants, we often see families breaking bread on a weekend. While they may stop for a while to pose for pictures, the young ones soon resume their preoccupation with their phones and tablets, not bothering to engage with each other and their parents. Bonding, the very purpose of going out as a group, to begin with, soon becomes an afterthought.

The digital age and the advent of social media have indeed connected the world with a few clicks and taps. Its obvious advantages can be seen in the 3Cs: Communication has never been this easy; Connections with friends and acquaintances wherever in the world have never been this fast; and to say its Convenient is an understatement. Work, studies, leisure, and relationships have benefitted so much from the convenience these digital tools bring.

Yet the advantages social media and the Digital Age bring are, ironically enough, the very same aspects that now hamper children’s development, life-skill building, and parent-child relationships.

Children’s downtime is an opportune time for them to create, read, play, and engage in countless activities people their age normally do as recent as 10 years ago. Giving the child a gadget when boredom strikes is an ephemeral way of addressing a whim.

Growing babies are supposed to explore and use their hands and feet in order to sharpen their senses and develop their motor skills. Eating time ought to be a busy, messy, and happy affair replete with practical and indirect lessons on interaction with their parents or nannies.

How can we expect these normal and “traditional” activities to transpire if we shove a gadget in front of them? Do we realize the implications of what we’re doing? We’re compromising the fleeting time they have, which should be used instead to help them develop themselves, as they engage with and explore the world around them with their hands and senses.

Meal times with the family, no matter the time of day, used to be sacred activities you don’t miss out on unless you have a perfectly valid excuse.

As long as mealtimes are spent in an ideal space that’s conducive for updating and uplifting conversations, countless studies attest to their benefit in improving intra-family relationships. But why are today’s parents allowing their kids to bring their respective gadgets with them to the dinner table? Apart from such neutral phrases as “please pass the rice” and “ketchup, please,” have you bothered checking the quality of your conversations during mealtimes lately?

If you think the rest of your family is zoning out during mealtimes while zeroing in on their gadgets, it’s best to set a no-gadget rule early on before their virtual lives take over their real lives and start stunting their growth to relate with others.

What really works in managing your family’s social media use?  Ironically enough, a broadband ad says it best: “The strongest connections are at home!” And I’m not referring to the Internet connection. It involves drawing the line between gadget time and mealtime. By allowing them to take gadgets to the dinner table, we can’t expect them to stop once their attention is drawn to these devices. Gadgets do come with a manual. But there are no manuals when it comes to raising kids in the digital world.

I’m drawing mostly from my personal experience since I’m a mom myself to two growing kids, ages seven and 10.  To begin with, it calls for a simplified and mindful mindset. As parents, we have to be decisive as well as responsive in raising our kids. At the same time, we’re expected to simplify matters for them. One way of doing this is to instill in them appreciation for what they have, including the “privilege” of using gadgets.

If kids feel that gadget use is their right, then don’t be surprised if they turn into entitled brats when they grow up. As parents, we’re duty-bound to plant the right seeds to help them become whole and upright individuals. And this encompasses their bodies, minds, emotions, and abilities to relate with other individuals in the future.

Toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence are varying stages when their identities and worth as persons are formed. A mere gadget is no match to my role as a parent and the values I supposedly instill in my children. Instead of being cool and detached, it pays to be a mindful, positive, and engaged parent. And since there’s no escaping the digital age, children need our help as they navigate and grow in this wired world.

By regulating their access to gadgets, we may sound conventional, outdated, or even mean parents. That’s okay. When we set rules on gadgets, we should mean it. When we say to our kids to go ahead and cry, but you can’t have gadget time, we should mean it. When we say no when our kids are becoming too demanding, we should mean it. Buying peace by caving in to their demands for a gadget comes with a price. I don’t want my kids and our home to be peaceful at the expense of compromising significant aspects in their development, learning, and ability to relate to others in the real world.

But such tough-love measures are necessary if we’re to produce responsible and well-rounded human beings. Their knowledge and familiarity with the virtual world should be balanced with activities that would make them enjoy and appreciate real-life opportunities to play, create, chat, express themselves, and be grateful for what they have, including the privilege of being granted access to gadgets.

Here are some tips and strategies, which I believe well-meaning parents can do to guide their children as they navigate the digital age:

Be role models. Walk your talk. If you impose a no-gadgets rule at the dinner table, then be sure that it starts with you.

Understand the development and personality of each of your children. Young children and teens, for instance, have different needs. Provide them with what is appropriate to their age and development stage. Gauge how they are growing and evolving. The content and exposure of kids to social media vary greatly depending on their development.

Unplug and play. Real-life play is the most important psychological need of children and teens that greatly affects their socio-emotional, and even physical and mental well-being.  They become active and creative, plus the fun they derive from these activities is immeasurable. If given a choice between real-life play versus gadget, steer them toward real life. There should always be a balance between the two.

Teach kids to be “critical media literates.” We can’t shield them from what social media and the wired world has to offer all the time. In such cases, we need to help them in honing their critical and logical thinking capacity. You may try exposing them to some “mild” forms of inappropriate media, and ask them how they feel and think about it. That way, you are also gauging their insights on how media is affecting them. Make media images as teaching moments.

Be clear on guidelines and the limits you give them. Social media and gadget management is really all about parenting. If we allow them to have some gadget time, we have to explain to them their responsibilities and what we’re expecting from them. If they do not abide by the well-meaning guidelines you’ve set, then choose to apply apt consequences. Try limiting their gadget hours and imposing no-gadget days.

Finally, we need to prioritize our relationships with our children. We need to be positive persons that they can relate to. Not really cool, or very giving parents, but “well-defined” parents who are affirming, present, and affectionate. We have to be present in their lives physically, emotionally, and perhaps even virtually. Engage with them and get to know what’s in their world, so you can take part in their journey as members of the digital generation. Gadgets can never replace the role we parents have in our children’s lives.

The author (www.michelealignay.com) is a registered psychologist, guidance counselor, and family life specialist. She is also the co-author of Growing Up Wired: Raising Pinoy Kids in the Digital Age. She will give a talk on crucial connections with the digital generation at Bo Sanchez’s “Kerygma Conference”, Nov. 17 to 20, at SMX Mall of Asia.