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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Technology and Socials and Screens, Oh My! (Social Media Series, pt. 1of 5)




A topic I get asked about a lot is social media use for children. It’s a big topic, and one that I try to be realistic about. First, I want to tackle technology, then screen time, then I’ll tackle social media specifically. 


When I was growing up, the debate centered around TV time.  There was a concern that TV was ‘rotting our brains’ or causing us to ‘never play outside’ and making it so that ‘we’re not hanging out with friends’. That ship seems to have sailed, with screen time becoming ubiquitous in our culture. Who among us doesn’t spend several hours a day in front of screens? 


Kids especially have almost constant access to screens. Babies have at least some access and exposure to tablets and phones before they even know how to walk or read. The discussion has become at what age a child should have their own cell phone rather than if they should have cell phones at all. 


I think, by and large, that you can’t fight the tide of progress. I watched a ton of TV as a kid, as soon as I could. If you took away my TV, it didn’t make me less likely to rot my brain– just used comic books and novels instead.  It didn’t make me more likely to go outside or play with friends; I would go outside if I wanted to, or I’d grab a book and go read under a tree. I’d call a friend if one was available, and if they weren’t, I’d go read. 


Was reading bad for me? I don’t think so. Was it better for me than TV?  It was different, but maybe not better. I learned reading comprehension better and maybe had a better vocabulary from reading rather than watching TV.  But TV taught me more about socializing and how people talked to each other in real life than the books I read. TV gave me more common ground with peers, a social frame of reference for what people were talking about and cared about at school. TV gave me a better idea of what was going on in the world than my old Hardy Boys books. TV often gave me a window on to a more diverse and complicated world than many of the books I had access to. 


TV had risks attached; lower physical activity, less motivation to put in mental effort to find entertainment.  Reading had different risks attached; it let me avoid social interactions, distracted me from taking some risks, limited my exposure to diverse or complex viewpoints to the books I had available.  


If we lean into strengths and mitigate risks, then there’s nothing inherently bad about TV vs. reading. There’s just less healthy or more healthy ways of engaging with them. 


The same is true about cell phones, tablets, video games, and social media. Technology isn’t going away, and it shouldn’t. Each advancement comes with significant strengths for humanity.  It also comes with risks that we have to mitigate.  


I do think it’s important to be thoughtful about how we introduce technology to children, how we police its use, and how we support the development of healthy habits and patterns.  I’d recommend the same thing for reading; introducing books to children that match their developmental stage and skill level, making sure that they are reading books that are appropriate for them in terms of content–I’m a bigger fan of equipping children to deal with topics over shielding them from topics, but there’s a time and place for both–and making sure they’re not reading so little that they miss out on developing reading skills, and aren’t reading during class under the desk so that they miss what is being taught (a problem experienced by a certain blog-writing therapist I know).  


It’s important to introduce technology to children with the expectation of an on-going conversation about it. If we give them technology without any conversation or guidance, they’ll educate themselves on its use. They’ll learn very quickly what it can do, how to make it do it, and the best way to find games with it. They’ll start to form their own relationship with the technology–which is good–but they’ll be doing it in a vacuum, which is not so great.  


I like to think of new technology like a knife. I wouldn’t give a child a knife and say, “Here you go, have fun.” We’d have a conversation about knife safety, the appropriate and inappropriate uses of a knife, and what sort of rules, expectations, and responsibilities come with knife ownership. There would be an expectation that having a knife was a privilege, one that they could quickly lose if they didn’t treat it with respect. 


Same with technology. 


If we start with that conversation, we become a participant in that developing relationship between child and technology. We can let them know about our concerns, our rules, and our expectations, and then encourage them to come to us as they learn new things.  We can reward discovery and learning with our attention and feedback, processing each new thing discovered with them. We can reinforce good decisions and help them make decisions mindfully rather than automatically.  We can help them understand risks to privacy and safety, separate trustworthy sources from untrustworthy ones, and help them process any content they find that is disturbing. 


We can become their ally and partner in navigating the technology. We’re not saying, “Here, this is yours now.”  We’re saying, “We’re giving you access to this, and we need to keep talking about it as you are using it.”

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