In the first part of this article I have addressed the impact of technology on children, specifically on brain development and learning. In this article, I look at the impact of technology on social development and discuss ways in which you can help your children find balance in the digital world.
The Influence of Technology on the Social Development of Children
1. Emotional Disconnect and Relationships
If you look around you, almost everyone is working on a smart phone or some digital device. The world has changed radically: where once people use to have face to face conversations, now life is fast-paced life and heart-to-heart conversations have been replaced by quick exchanges of short sentences. No body language or facial expressions are captured by these messages, which is the reason why they are often misunderstood or misread.
This change means that our children’s generation has not necessarily learnt the art of building deep relationships through conversation and real interest in the world and feelings of others. Children are also more easily exposed to things like violence or porn, because so many have access to digital devices, smartphones, tablets and computers, often without the proper guidance on how to use it wisely. In my opinion the real meaning of the word “friend” has lost some of its value. Nowadays, when a group of people share a WhatsApp group, they are labelled as friends. These people do not necessarily share the same views and values in life, which again brings a disconnect between the real and cyber world. Friends are supposed to share life, values, be your safe space, and that is not always the case on screen.
BullyingUK have released the following stats on cyberbullying:
- 20% of children show fear of cyberbullying and are therefore discouraged to go to school
- 5% self-harm associated with cyberbullying
- 3% have made an attempt to end their life as a result of cyberbullying
- children and youths are twice as likely to be bullied on Facebook than any other social network sites
- 28% of youths have reported events of cyberbullying on Twitter and 26% on Ask.fm
Cyberbullying could include harassment, cyber-stalking, slander, exclusion, spreading rumours, using offensive language, starting online fights, blackmailing and many more. There are websites with guidelines and helplines if you suspect your child is being bullied. Warning signs to look out for are fear, depression, loneliness or withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem, struggling to sleep, no or low appetite, and a drop in grades.
Generally speaking, cyberbullying is risky because children do not have the emotional ability to deal with what they read in bullying messages. Children do not have the ability to necessarily separate what they read on a screen from reality. The harmful words on screen become the reality and truth for them. There is also a physical impact on the brain of a child being cyber bullied. In the case of danger, the brain prepares for flight or fight mode. During this preparation, the brain releases a stress hormone called cortisol. This is a normal reaction. Once the danger is over, the brain should return to its natural state. However, in the case of cyber-bullying, the brain stays in this heightened and alerted state. Eventually the brain will start to lose its ability to recover after such an event. This could affect a child’s ability to switch off, concentrate and store information.
Where is the Balance in all of this?
Our family is by no means perfect, neither would I say we have the proper solutions to technology use. These facts and statistics also scare me as I delve into the information and as I am seeing the consequences in the lives of our children and their friends daily. So, what is the perfect balance? I wish I could limit screen time to the minimum. But the reality is that it is not practical either. My daughters do have to do school projects and need to do research. We allow them to do information searches while we are sitting with them. And we do allow them to watch movies, but limit it to weekends. When it comes to surfing the Internet, it’s never been about not trusting my daughters. The issue is that we know how the Internet works and what they could be fed with while innocently Googling for information about their subjects. Our children know that the most important thing to us is being deeply connected with them and building relationships. We always try and create a safe, non-judging environment for them to speak about anything and everything. And if we make decisions that have an impact on them, we talk them through so that even if they don’t agree, they understand our reasoning. Here are some practical ways in which our family is dealing with life and technology.
We are a family of book-lovers. This is something we have instilled in our children from a very young age. We read real books and not on screens. We take time off as a family and go to book stores and libraries to explore new books on the market.
2. Dinner conversations
We try and enjoy regular family dinners together. In today’s busy world, with my husband working long hours, this is difficult to do every day. But as often as possible, and especially over the weekend, we make a point of sitting and eating together as a family. Our dining room table is the space where we have open and honest discussions – real heart-to-heart discussions, spiritual discussions as well as age appropriate debates about politics and current affairs, where we laugh together and cry together. This is a good way to instill and affirm family values and life skills. I have recently heard a talk where the speaker explained that whatever our children hear first about any subject, becomes the lenses they use to compare and measure any future information about that subject. To us it is important that we talk to them first and that our values and beliefs become the lenses they see the world through, instead of reading about it on the Internet.
As our children get older, I have sadly seen that they don’t have so much time to play anymore. School and activities take up a lot of their time. We encourage them to play outside as often as possible, climbing, building, imaginative play, creative play – things you can’t really do on a screen. We often play board games together and if we go to a restaurant for a family date-night, we take these games with us. We have had the most fun-filled evenings with our girls this way. Building memories, they will not forget.
We encourage our children to exercise often. We are fortunate enough to be able to walk to school, but try and do walkathons and cycling trails together. These are also great for building our relationship and having fun together.
5. Managing digital access
We try and limit our digital access to the minimum. We do research about new Apps in order to manage the phone and computer access of my eldest daughter, allowing her to do what is necessary, yet protecting her as much as possible.
We can learn a lot from previous generations. Their advice and wisdom on how to live life and build connections is something I truly value. And I guess there is a place for technology in today’s world. The secret is to find a healthy balance between the two.