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Is Your Child Addicted to Mobile Devices?

Half of parents worry that tech undermines a child’s healthy development.

Are you worried that your child is “addicted” to their smart phone or tablet? If so, you would not be alone. In a January 2018 survey of 1,024 parents with children younger than 18, 47 percent felt that their child was "addicted” to their mobile device. Interestingly, 32 percent of those parents said the same about themselves.

Addiction to tech devices is more serious for children. Electronic screens are so alluring that it’s difficult for the child to turn to something else—thus, the child can easily become addicted to the screen.

YouTube is a big factor in parents’ worries. Although YouTube offers parental controls, just 40 percent of parents surveyed take advantage of them.

The latest worry for parents comes from Facebook, which recently launched “Messenger Kids,” the first app designed specifically for children. Around 100 child advocates and experts have urged Facebook to discontinue this app over concerns that it will "undermine children's healthy development."

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, these experts wrote: "Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts." Kids "are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users. They also do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including what's appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures, and videos."

Facebook, however, has done the exact opposite of what the child advocates requested: It has made the Messenger Kids app more widely available.

Facebook’s reasoning is that kids are already regularly using social media apps so why not offer their app to tap into this huge market. Recent research indicates that a whopping 93 percent of 6-12-year-olds have access to smart phones or tablets and 66 percent have their own device.

Facebook points out that there is no advertising in their Messenger Kids app. They seek to avoid the trouble that YouTube ran into with YouTube Kids where advocates were concerned about ads on the service for products like Coca-Cola and Oreos.

Although social networking apps can keep kids and teens connected to friends and family, texts do not allow for eye contact or an understanding of the emotions behind the messages. Paradoxically, social media may have the effect of undermining a child’s ability for healthy social interaction. According to a 2015 Pediatrics article by Barry Zuckerman, et al, “The instant accessibility and portability of mobile devices make them potentially more likely to displace human interactions and other enriching activities.”

Although the authors acknowledge that smartphones and tablets play a positive role in distracting children during medical and surgical procedures, the devices are too often used by parents as a “shut-up toy” during daily routines such as errands, car rides, and eating at restaurants. Lengthy exposure to electronic screens negatively affects child development by displacing language- and play-based interactions with caregivers and peers.

 used with permission
Source: Shutterstock: used with permission

Takeaways for Parents

1. Be interactive with your child. Try a game or app first and then play it with the child. Ask the child about it afterward to see what he or she is learning.

2. Use parental controls to limit exposure to violence and pornography.

3. Use parental controls to monitor and limit the amount of time kids spend on devices.

4. Have plenty of non-tech interactive play experiences with your child, like reading books to or with them, playing board games, or doing puzzles.

5. Arrange play dates for your child to encourage face-to-face social interaction with peers.

6. Consider a tech "fast" for your child. Gradually remove tech devices and replace them with activities like board games, reading, swimming, bicycling, a family camping trip, etc. Keep your child away from tech devices for two or three weeks. You will notice the difference in their behavior.

More from Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.
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