Don't Nag! A Better Solution for Kids and Their Electronics
by Stacy Curtis
Can your child play on the phone or computer for hours? Do family events turn into "put-your-phone-down-and-interact-with-the-rest-of-the-family" lectures? Read on for helpful solutions.
Teens and Electronics – There is Hope
Let’s be real: You and I both know the dangers of kids being on electronics all the time. We both know how hard it is to limit their time…in other words, do the right thing. If you’re like me, you alternate between nagging/yelling and giving up in the name of peace. Neither alternative is the right thing.
Wait, there's a better solution.
I know other parents have similar frustrations, so I turned to licensed therapist, speaker and author Colleen O’Grady who specializes in encouraging and empowering mothers of teenagers, especially teen daughters, to live their highest and best life. From her coaching programs to her therapy sessions, she has helped thousands of mothers and teenage girls uncover their true purpose in life, create more happiness, and move to a place of inner peace. Here is the wisdom she shared with me.
Colleen, let’s start with defining the issue. What are some of the consequences of young teens being on electronics so much? Are there any positive results of them being electronic-savvy?
Electronics can be good for us in many ways. It’s why you’re doing what you’re doing at KidsOutAndAbout. The internet is a great resource for sharing information, finding fun ways to connect with people, and it’s entertaining. You can literally Google anything and find information. It’s the encyclopedia of our time. Teens and kids can look up YouTube how-to videos, find musicians to listen to their favorite music, discover answers to questions they’re curious about, and see all kinds of interesting things. Electronics can be a source of inspiration and even talent.
The question gets to our cultural transformation over the last few decades...
The increase in screen time is the biggest lifestyle change for children and teens. The average American school child spends more than 53 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, texting, or using the computer. The only thing they do more than that is sleep. Stanford University found that for every hour we are on our computers, face-to-face interaction drops by nearly 30 minutes. In 2010, Pew Internet & American Life Project fund that face-to-face communication fell behind texting as a teen’s favorite way to communicate with friends.
That is the culture our kids are growing up in. Right away, the consequence is that our teens are not moving their bodies as much. If you’re spending 53 hours online, you’re not moving around as much as you normally would. That causes a whole other set of problems. Exercise has many positive benefits, but it’s especially important in terms of relieving stress. Just 30 minutes of cardio a day gets rid of excess cortisol and adrenaline. Kids and teens literally have all this stress inside of them with no place to go. This makes them more edgy and often causes difficulty sleeping.
When kids choose electronics in terms of communication, they’re talking less. Their brains are not wiring networks needed for communication skills, empathic listening, and the ability to interpret and respond to nonverbal cues. A typical scenario we see is a group of teens sitting at Starbucks, all with computers open, texting and trying to talk all at the same time. This causes another problem in terms of attention.
Multitasking on electronics keeps us in a state of continual partial attention, not focusing on any one task. Of course, kids will say they can watch TV, post on Instagram, text, and do homework because they’re good at this kind of stuff, but scientists have found there is really no such thing as multitasking. They are, in reality, switching attention very quickly from one thing to another. So focus and attention is becoming a more difficult. Our kids are not living as much in the real world or building live relationships.
It’s not that all digital or internet is a bad thing. It just needs to be monitored, and the time needs to be limited.
The thing is, our preteens and teens cannot monitor or limit themselves. It is so flashy, addictive, and exciting that they can easily get hooked. It’s hard for them to disconnect on their own.
With the necessity of phones and computers nowadays (including homework downloads and online homework lessons assigned from school) it's harder to regulate when kids are online for a good reason or when they're not without looking over their shoulder all the time. What are your recommendations?
That’s a great question. This is a real challenge for parents. The overall concept here is that kids and teens need a lot of accountability. And we can’t expect them to be able to monitor their time or even what they’re looking at. We have to really take steps to protect them. In the past year, I’ve seen a lot of issues come up with cell phones. So many pre-teen, middle school and freshman girls are on their phones in the evening and get bullied by boys to send pictures (or sexting).
Parents don’t realize that a lot of girls don’t know how to say no, and don’t know what to say. As one of my colleagues said, we all made mistakes a teenagers, but with the digital age, these mistakes are there forever. Because of that, parents just have to be very on top of things. I recommend that kids don’t have access to their cell phone and computers when they go to bed. Especially in middle school years parents are blindsided. It’s a surprising transition from childhood to preteen, the parents often aren’t ready for this yet. They can’t imagine that their girls or boys would be exposed to anything sexual.
With cyberbullying, there can be a lot of shame around being on the receiving end of it. Especially around sexting if you are the one who gets the text, it’s embarrassing to bring up with parents. Often there is shame around that. So parents need to establish an open policy with the phones and computers. Then if you find something, you can have a discussion about it. Your child may not be able to bring it up on their own, they need parents to help them know how to respond to these things.
So how do you monitor their electronics without nagging?
It’s going to be challenging for parents, but worth the effort. In terms of schoolwork, you have to get strategic so you’re not constantly in your kid’s face. One idea is to talk with them and ask “What homework do you have?” When they explain you can ask, “How long do you think that will take?” Let’s assume they respond 45 minutes, then you can reply. “OK great, why don’t you show me what you’ve found in 45 minutes?” So you’re not constantly looking over their shoulder. Of
course they may go back and forth between YouTube and homework, but they’ll have to show what they’ve been doing. So setting time limits is a successful strategy. Knowing that you have an open policy where you can check their computer or phone any time gives them the accountability they need.
A helpful concept is that you want your family to have a “digital diet.” Digital is great if it’s limited. Like food, you can’t eat food 53 hours a week. So parents and kids need to come up with what each person’s digital diet looks like. Plan for times when kids take a break from electronics, like during dinner or when they are doing homework, or going to sleep. The most important thing here is that parents take lead (not the kids) in this area.
So how much time is too much?
In my programs I talk about creating a Proactive Parenting Strategy. This is where you create a plan in advance. Look at all aspects ofyour teenager's life: from school activities like choir or dance or sports, to creative projects, to responsibilities, to religious organizations, to the foundations of exercise and sleep. Get them involved and engaged in real life and relationships. Get them out into the world by going to the opera or a musical or get them outside by going to the park or going to the beach.
When you’re looking at the whole thing you can see if they are engaged, challenged, connecting with friends, and helping others. Step back view the overall picture of your teenager’s life, then you know how much digital time fits. Parents can make an educated decision and know if it is appropriate. If your child has visited with friends, done soccer practice, walked the dog and they want a little extra computer time, that’s fine. Everything should be in balance.
Aside from the issue of electronics, the junior high and surrounding years are some of the toughest for self-esteem. How can parents help their kids through that?
What I have noticed is another cultural trend – what I call the pressure to be perfect. There is an impossible standard set so high that both adults and kids are impacted by. The teen knows what they’re “supposed” to look like, how they should dress, what they’re supposed to weigh, what kind of grades they’re supposed to make, how they’re supposed to compete and who they’re supposed to date. They know there's a standard being held over them. Even if they act like they don’t care, they still feel that pressure.
Years ago, I would see teens because they snuck out of the house and got drunk. Now I see teens because they are so stressed out. What that does in terms of self-esteem…it creates a fierce competition. What happens in middle school or high school, or even earlier - it could happen in first grade. Your self-esteem starts to be defined by how you compare to others. If you’re a girl and you’re skinnier than the girl sitting next to you, you feel better about yourself. If your friend made a better grade than you, you feel worse. At the basketball game if you missed the basket or sat on the sidelines, you feel worse. If you got the lead role in the school musical and your friend didn’t, you feel better about yourself.
This constant comparison becomes a huge problem because how you feel about yourself wavers all day long. What compounds this is that the parents feel pressure for their kids to be perfect too. It's easy to compare your kids to other kids. If your kid doesn't perform well in school, you feel like a bad parent. If your kid quits the team, you feel like a bad parent.
As parents, we have to be careful not to add to that stress our kids are already feeling. When we get stressed as parents, we can lose control and start shaming or belittling our kids. This isn't helpful in any way; it only lowers child’s self-esteem. Your kids hear, “Mom or Dad thinks I’m stupid or doesn’t like me.”
That’s tough! What can parents do?
What I say is you have to bring it back to what is your child’s best. So if the child is competing with himself or herself, then that’s doable. You can celebrate if your child makes a B on the test and brings the grade up a few points. You can celebrate that success. If your child never exercises and then makes the effort to walk around the block, you can celebrate that too. So for a parent, it’s being able to point out to the kid or the teen where they are making progress.
It’s also allowing your teen to be able to have a safe place to vent. Your teen needs to be able to say why they’re stressed out. If your child is stressed or upset, an important skill is to learn is how to calm down. The parents need to wait for their child to be calm before they talk to them. Kids can’t hear anything a parent says if they’re upset.
Here’s where the internet can be useful. If your child is stressed, it might be calming to watch YouTube videos for 30 minutes. That would be a positive use of electronics. They say that sleep is to the body as downtime is to the brain. Meaning a developing brain needs downtime to process all that it is learning. But we have a big problem in our culture with overscheduling. What's missing is just time to hang out and relax. In other words, we’re missing that downtime. That downtime is desperately needed…and it reduces stress.
Some kids go beyond that downtime to absorb themselves in online games, music or other sites and start excluding family and friends, how can we encourage them to interact with others so they learn to become well-balanced adults? How can parents help kids become less self-absorbed?
You really have to be intentional about getting your kids engaged in life. That’s going to take some thought and creativity and resources like KidsOutAndAbout can give you some great ideas for what to do with family time. Engagement is the key. You want your kids engaging with relationships, using their bodies and creativity. They can do this by learning how to cook, taking a yoga class, or walking at the park.
Just taking care of a pet can be helpful. Your teen is interacting with a real live animal. They are engaged when they play with the cat or take the dog on a walk. Service projects and helping other people is another great way to be engaged in the world.
It is challenging, but doable
How can parents help a child who doesn't want to participate in any after-school sports/clubs or anything to develop themselves? Should we just let them do their thing or force them to participate? Is there an alternative?
Here’s the challenging part, forcing never gets good results. So let’s start with sports. If your daughter says “No I don’t want to do sports,” it’s important to have a conversation about that when she’s calm, and not when she’s upset. Get curious. Find out why she doesn’t want to do club volleyball. My guess is if you listen closely, you’ll hear what the obstacle is.
Unfortunately because of this perfectionistic standard, school activities and sports are now for the super stars. So your child may not want to do an activity because she’s not a “good” athlete, or a “good” dancer, and that becomes a huge problem. Now, exercise is only for the star athlete. Or the school musical is for the best singers and actors.
Have a conversation with your teen. Find out what the obstacle is for him or her. Some will say, “I don’t know any kids who are going.” It might be an “I’m not good enough” issue, it might be just fear. During your conversation, if your child feels understood they will be open to more options. Because maybe there's another way to do sports that’s not competitive, like taking a Zumba class just for fun. Take the fierce competition out of it. Maybe take guitar lessons for fun rather than being performance-based. Take the pressure out of it.
A lot of times if you make kids get involved, then the teen will resist you and it becomes a battle. Make it a two-way conversation. Brainstorm about things that will be fun for her to try, "This could be a great experience. I’m not going to force you, but just try it once." That’s different than saying, "you’re going whether you like it or not." There are times kids need to be pushed. Sometimes they need a little help getting started. If your child says, “I don’t want to email that person about the opportunity,” make it easy for them. You can email or call that teacher or coach.
Start by taking out failure completely. "You can’t fail, you’re just trying it out." Get them involved in activities where it’s just fun, it's not a competition at all. The fear of failing is probably the thing that’s stopping them from participating. For example, if they are going to take an art class, make it about play. You get to play with color or clay. It becomes a safe experience where it's just for fun. They don’t have to be the best art student. They have plenty of things in their life that they’re feeling pressured from, so have some things in their life that they can just learn or play or challenge themselves that’s just fun.
Thanks for your insight, Colleen! Where can we find more resources to help us parent our teens?
Find out more at www.poweryourparenting.com.
Colleen O’Grady is a Licensed Therapist, and Life Coach in the Houston area with over 20 years of experience, as well as a national speaker. She is the creator of Power Your Parenting podcast, e-zine and program, which has now served thousands of moms from all over the country, helping them reconnect with their teenage daughters, dial down the drama, reclaim their “I Feel Good” energy, and move to a place of inner peace. Her popular parenting program called "Power Your Parenting" is offered a few times a year. It is designed specifically for moms of teenage girls. Colleen recently received a book deal from a New York Publisher for Dial Down the Drama, which will be released in 2015.
Go to poweryourparenting.com and sign up for her free eBook,
For more information contact:
Colleen O'Grady, Licensed Therapist, Speaker, Author
Founder Of Power Your Parenting
Need more ideas? See Five Uses for Electronics at the Dinner Table.