The new book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, is creating quite a stir. It has gotten many people talking and thinking about how we parent. So, in this heightened atmosphere of parenting concerns, I've chosen the subject of parenting for my first blog. Why? Because so much of what I do in my work with families that struggle with Internet Addiction has to do with parenting, even if the child in question is now 25 years old! If you've not parented like a Tiger Mom (and let's face it, few in the US have), you may have either a permissive or authoritarian parenting style, neither of which, as research shows, works well for producing self-reliant, self confident, fully-fledged young adults. In the modern age of ubiquitous digital media, it is very easy for parents to succumb to children's wishes for more and more access to their computers and the internet. So, why not give in? The answer has to do with how child development is influenced by a child's use of computers (including video games, smart phones, etc). When the use is excessive, then the impact can be profound and negative.
Let me back up a moment and introduce myself. I'm a psychotherapist who specializes in Internet and video game addiction. My out-patient clinic, Internet/Computer Addiction Services (co-founded with Jay Parker, CDP) is located in Redmond, WA (home of Microsoft), and my in-patient, retreat center for Internet addicts, reSTART, (co-founded with Cosette Rae, MSW) is located in Fall City, WA, not far away. I've been specializing in this problem for many years. For reasons I cannot explain, I saw the approaching flood, when internet addiction was only a trickle. Now, that flood is upon us. Statistics tell us that between 6 and 13% of the general population meets criteria for Internet Addiction. In the college age population, that number stands between 13 and 19%! That's a lot of young adults who are addicted to digital technology. In S. Korea and China, the problem is growing so rapidly that those governments have declared Internet Addiction to be their #1 public health threat. Think about it. #1.
If you are going to allow your child access to computers, the Internet, and video games, then there are some guidelines which, if followed, should allow your child to develop normally, with a healthy relationship to digital media.
1.Don't let your child use a computer or video games before the age of 7. This delay gives the child a chance to bond with caregivers (assuming you're not distracted from parenting by your own computer use), develop social relationships with others, fully engage natural inclinations toward creative play, curiosity, sociability, and physical activity: in other words, to fully engage with the world, and develop the physical and psychological skills needed to succeed in that world. Allowing a child at these young ages to spend time captivated by a digital screen can interrupt this natural development and set a child up for a life time of underperformance in many arenas, and poor self-esteem as a consequence. It also sets the stage for digital addiction.
2. If and when you allow your child to play video games, and use computers for their personal pleasure, limit their digital screen time. 1 hour for elementary age children, 2 hours for middle-schoolers, and 3 hrs for high schoolers. Make sure that your child understands that these media are powerful and potentially hazardous to their health, and the privilege of using such media lasts only as long as the child demonstrates age-appropriate maturity and ability to follow your rules. If the child fails, then the privilege should be withdrawn for an extended period of time, allowing maturation to proceed to the point that she or he can comply.
4. When and if you allow your child to play video games, limit them to casual games played alone or with others in the home, NOT over the internet. This is because the rewards and sense of obligation that occurs when playing with others, greatly increases the risk of addiction. And, many parents would find the content of conversation among players highly inappropriate (and, especially for girls, predatory).
5. Screen what comes into your home. Make sure you are comfortable with the content, whether it is a video game or the sites visited by your child. Use software to screen out porn and track where your child goes on the Internet. Let your child know that the computer is not a private space, that you are supervising the computer use, and that, if privacy is what s/he wants, phones and face-to-face get-togethers allow for those private conversations.
6. When and if you allow your child to have a phone, make it one that is simply a phone, not a smart phone with access to the internet. And do not allow texting until your child is in high school and demonstrating a high level of maturity both at home and with academic work. Texting is highly distracting, interfering with a person's ability to focus as needed on school, driving, sleep and social interactions.
7. Do not worry that by limiting your child's access to digital technology that you are being a bad parent. Quite the contrary. You are limiting access to something so powerful that, unless appropriately used, could lead to severe negative consequences. And research has demonstrated that teens who grow up without computers are able to use digital technology with as much skill as their "digital native" peers within months of use.
8. Model what you preach. If you want to raise a child that lives a well-balanced life, then you need to model that. You can not expect your child to use digital media moderately if you, yourself, are constantly on your smart phone, laptop, or the home computer.
9. Invest your time in your children. Don't let a screen keep them distracted and out of your hair so you can pursue your own pleasures. If you need a break from your child, then a little screen time won't hurt, but if you would rather be doing something else, and let the screen be the parent instead of you, then your child is not getting what he or she needs. Our kids need us - our attention, our insistence on the rules, our consistency, our wisdom, our love. Don't let a screen come between you.