Growing Up Digital

(Q&A with Psychologist Dr. Sarah Trosper Olivo- see what she has to say about when you should let your child have a cell phone)

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You are outside skateboarding with your two neighborhood friends, a bomb goes off in the Middle East, you’re laughing, skating around, joking with your pals, seeing who can skate the fastest, just having a blast. You don’t care about the bomb in the Middle East because you don’t know about the bomb in the Middle East. You don’t know because the Internet doesn’t exist yet, Twitter, Facebook, non- existent. Oh and there are no cell phones either.

Can you remember that time?

I often wonder how kids these days manage the load. Yes we are living in a different time and a digital world. And I’m not one of those old-fashioned types that is going to bad-mouth technology. No doubt that technology has given all of us some essential and positive aspects to life. We are certainly more informed about the world today and sometimes that’s a good thing. But we can’t ignore that technology has also given us too much information and sometimes it’s made us dumb-founded, confused and too reactionary. I know I’m guilty of it.

But as adults having technology gradually infused in us, I think we are somewhat able to have a perspective on it. I catch myself logging on too much and I stop, plain and simple. Kids that have grown up after 2000 don’t have that perspective, they live and breath being online. And it worries me as I’m the parent of a 2 year old where technology is so embedded in his life.

Kids today know about school shootings, bombings, murders, natural catastrophes, in an instant. And even if you weren’t plugged into the Internet, someone who is plugged in, is going to tell you all about it. And we are not just talking about bad events. Even something that is perhaps meant to be harmless like some 10 year old who walks on his hands while singing the National Anthem, has a million hits on YouTube or has a million Instagram followers. So what does your child do? Can they beat that? With so much information at our fingertips, it sends out a disturbing message about competitiveness, “I have a million followers, how many do you have?”

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It’s exhausting and I think produces a lot of anxiety for kids these days. But of course I wanted to get an expert opinion on all this as we obviously can’t go back in time, technology and social media are a part of our lives for better or worse. But how is it affecting our kids, their behavior, their socialization, their ability to cope, manage the information overload? I always wondered about all this. I’m someone that grew up playing hopscotch and building blocks. Kids today don’t have as much of that free play anymore, or they just don’t utilize it as much.

And of course need I mention this new thing called cyber bullying.

Let’s talk to Dr. Sarah Trosper Olivo to get an expert opinion:

Q) We all know there are positives and negatives to technology, let’s start on a good note, what are some of the positive aspects to kids today exposed to and having so much technology at their disposal?
A) In small or moderate doses, having access to some amount of screen time allows kids to be part of the social conversation at their school, where most kids are playing some popular video game or other.  And we’ve seen that kids with some access to touch screens or video games do have a physical and mental dexterity with technology that will be very handy for them in our world full of touch screens.  Technology can allow children who are perhaps over-scheduled to have some needed downtime in their brain. They experience something called “flow,” which is when our mind has a very calming balance of being challenged but without mental stress. Musicians talk about it when they’re playing their instrument. Kids brains benefit from flow just like adult brains do.
I think a lot of children today are more aware of social issues, even at young ages. They can see messages about being kind to our earth, treating people different from us with kindness, and using their voice and passion to make changes. I’ve seen so many posts of young children selling lemonade or cookies for refugees or communities impacted by natural disaster. When I was young, I’m pretty sure my lemonade money went straight into the cash register at my local toy store.
Q) what are the negative aspects?
On the flip side, with this compassion comes a lot more worry. Ignorance really can be bliss. It takes a lot of parental monitoring to figure out the right balance for their own kids. Plus parents need to understand the technology and have the willpower to enforce house rules. This can be really hard! I think this has meant that kids often see images or have access to information that’s above their mental pay grade, and they don’t always know how to process it. Even with more innocent games, children often get asked to purchase things for the game in order to keep playing, or they see that their friends are playing online on a different team than them. Kids have to manage FOMO way too early these days if you ask me.
Q) how do you think kids behavior has changed as a result of technology, social media, the internet?
A) I’m certainly not the first one to point out that kids aren’t playing outside nearly as much these days as they used to. Older kids and teens have a lot of very serious conversations over text, where they can’t always read social cues or facial expressions. In my office, when I hear a teen talking about talking to a friend I have to say “talking or texting?” 100% of the time it’s texting.
Q) Do you think there’s a behavioral or developmental difference between technology use e.g. video games or computer use vs social media FB, Twitter, Instagram?
A) I think they lead to different issues. Video or internet use can be used as a coping strategy for anxiety or depression. Sort of a self-medication for young kids who might struggle to be in a social setting. When it becomes a problem for a kid, it’s often a side effect of an emotional issue that was there before the video game playing started. I think social media, on the other hand, can actually generate negative emotion in kids. They’re feeling ok, sign on to Instagram, see a bar mitzvah they weren’t invited to and BOOM, they’re feeling rejected.
Q) At what age is appropriate for a child to have a FB account and a cell phone?
A) Can I say never? Is never an ok answer to give here? Ok, clearly I’m kidding (sort of) but I will tell you I’m holding out as long as possible. I’m working with a group of moms in my town on a “Wait Until 8” campaign, which asks parents to consider waiting until 8th grade for their children to have access to social media. And I would clarify that this means waiting for social media access and a *smart* phone. Companies have caught on to the fact that kids might need phones but that they don’t actually need smart phones. Parents have a lot more options now than they used to, and companies are offering phones that limit or don’t include methods for kids to access social media sites.
Q) I’m sure a lot of parents want to know how much is too much technology?  It’s obviously impossible to eliminate technology from a child completely today, but what are the parameters for a good balance?
A) I personally started talking about Dr. Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter philosophy really early with my kids. It’s essentially a philosophy that, just like getting a range of foods in our bodies to stay healthy, we also need to do a range of activities to keep our minds healthy. We need sleep time, down time, physical time, connecting time, and so on. (More on this here: www.mindplatter.com) So yes, video games can be down time and social media can be connecting time, and that’s all ok as long as it’s balanced with the other parts of a healthy mind. Once you’re child has access to social media, keep the conversation flowing. Ask them to pay attention to how it impacts them. Give them coping tips for how to manage it. You don’t just give your teen the car keys when they’re 16 and say, “Ok, be careful!” You’re in that car with them, giving them tips and making them slow down when they need to. Teaching them about technology shouldn’t be any different.
Q) While there is no concrete evidence, I’ve read a lot of articles that say kids today are more anxious, depressed and isolated and that social media has had a significant hand in that?  Would you agree and if so, what can a parent do to help with this?
A) I absolutely agree, and we’re actually starting to see some pretty clear connections. My biggest piece of advice is to wait, talk to your friends and convince them to hold off, work with the school to encourage limited social media use in school, etc. I know this sounds pretty hard core but I’m telling you it’s as bad as what they’re saying. You put safety locks on the cabinets when they’re babies and lock the liquor cabinet when they’re teens. So put safety measures on their mental health, too. Read articles, pay attention and be involved in your child’s social media use while they live in your house. I’m quoting Anastasia Basil here, who writes a lot on this topic: “Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything.”
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Sarah Trosper Olivo, Ph.D.
City and Country CBT
(347) 746-8396

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