Why are young children so mesmerized by computer technology?
For one, video game manufacturers spend lots of money studying the neuroscience of behavior. Talking to the owner of one of these companies, I was stunned by his knowledge of children's brain development. He told me straight out that his corporate mission is to understand how to make games as addictive as possible.
So, while parents struggle with whether or not to use stickers, praise, or punishment to motivate kids to do their chores and homework, game developers skip straight to the most up-to-the-minute findings on how to keep dopamine pumping and gamma waves flowing, how to light up the brain's reward circuitry and captivate players for as long as possible.
And the charm of electronic portals starts young. Ever watch a two- or three-year-old navigate an iPad for the first time? Because the interface is designed to be intuitive, to gracefully follow the path of human curiosity, even very small children figure out what to do in minutes. And once they realize that this magic machine, with its beautiful backlit screen, follows their command-as so little else does in a tiny person's life-they are hooked. It's startling to watch them handle complex technology like pros. They're nimble, deft, and patient-until a parent separates them from their new companion. Then they melt down, whine, and wail: "I want iPad! Give me! Now!"
Young children can be very demanding.
As can preteens, who are just as passionate and far more sophisticated in their approach. Lobbying for a phone, they'll tell their parents: "Then I can TEXT you and tell you when to pick me up after practice…or…I can call you in an EMERGENCY! Mom, EVERY single one of my friends has one! What's wrong with you? Don't you trust me?" For a laptop, they'll play the homework card: "I can't do any assignments without it! Do you want me to just not turn things in?" Then the computer goes straight into the bedroom, the door closes on the parents, and the child enters the wired universe. Only later do most parents realize they've now given their child the equivalent of keys to a racecar, without driver's lessons or a license.
Of course, all this technology does offer children wonderful benefits. Our kids can be in touch with friends and relatives anywhere in the world instantaneously. They can text a parent who's traveling and Skype with grandparents across the country. They can also take advantage of rich resources for Jewish learning, and hang out at a virtual campfire with their bunkmates long after summer is over.
At the same time, parents are right to fear that their children will venture down dangerous digital highways, surf or socialize when they should be studying, or humiliate friends or themselves by sending pinup self-portraits to their crush. But what are they to do?
When parents just say "no" and forbid any kind of electronic connectivity, kids complain that they've lost essential social currency: boys feel excluded from the schoolyard conversation about total zombie kills; girls feel painfully deprived of expressing themselves on their "pages" and analyzing the important issues of the day with friends. It's the old digital native/digital immigrant divide. And it's growing.
How can "immigrant" parents set digital boundaries that make sense for their "native" children?
Rather than automatic indulgence or denial, parents can empathize with their children's desires, but take time before making decisions. Instead of using age as the yardstick of readiness for online access, they can base digital privileges-access to networks and ownership of devices-on an individual child's overall level of maturity, accountability, and reliability. Do teachers describe him as a respectful and cooperative classroom citizen? Does he hand in his homework on time? Does she refrain from lashon hara (gossiping)? Does she weigh her words before speaking, or are there frequent self-created dramas with friends or family? When he interacts with other people, does he practice chesed (compassion)? Everything from fibbing to outright lying, from shouting and fighting, to teasing and joshing with friends IRL (in real life) is exaggerated online as kids become emboldened by asynchronous exchanges, anonymity, and the lack of nonverbal cues inherent in online communication. When in doubt about a child's readiness to manage these powerful social tools, a parent can always say: "Not yet. Here's what I need to see first. Then I'll be glad to reconsider."
Once parents are ready to grant some gaming rights or online freedoms, it's helpful to have a business meeting with their child to discuss particulars. What are the family rules for permissible web exploration? Policies about downloading? Guidelines regarding screen time? Agreements about sharing of personal information and general standards for netiquette? Measures that will be used to evaluate whether or not these standards are being respected?
Two simple practices can help avoid daily negotiations and tension: leave devices outside of bedrooms at night to avoid temptation and sleep deprivation, and outside of the dining room at mealtimes. In addition, parents need to keep encouraging children-who don't yet have the cognitive ability to anticipate the impact of present actions on future outcomes-to remember the fundamental principle of cyberlife: everything they do electronically is public and permanent. Author Richard Guerry (Public and Permanent: The Golden Rule of the 21st Century) writes: "Before you do anything with a camera, cell phone, or computer, imagine the person who means the most to you in the world standing over your shoulder. If you're [comfortable] with that person seeing what you're about to do, and you're [comfortable] with what you're about to do becoming part of your permanent legacy, go ahead. If not, don't do it."
Some parents have created a "no cybercommunications at Shabbat dinner" policy. Protecting Jewish time, in particular, has the potential to make a deep spiritual impact and help draw families close.
For example, by making the Shabbat table off-limits to the automatic habits and reflexes of the week-alerting to every beep, feeling pressure to be productive-we give ourselves the opportunity to usher in holiness. By erecting a fence against cyber intrusion, we replace the public sphere with family and friends, the new with the time-tested, the rhythms of everyday life with the sensual experience of seeing candles glow and hearing beautiful ancient melodies. By putting machines in the background, we put spirituality in the foreground.
How can parents go about designing digital agreements that meet their family's needs?
Parents can craft all-inclusive agreements and standards for appropriate computer use by using some of the great resources available online (of course, where else?). For a quickie introduction, safekids.com spells out Internet safety guidelines by age, from two to 17. Protectkids.com provides sample family Internet safety contracts. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, pewinternet.org, offers comprehensive guidelines on such topics as kindness and social cruelty on social networks, social media privacy management, and the stealth methods advertisers utilize to track user data via innocent-appearing mobile game applications. Investing time in this kind of consciousness-raising reduces paranoia and raises parental awareness. It shrinks the digital divide.
Should parents be concerned about their children becoming cyber-addicted?
Yes, they should. In one South Park episode, nine-year-old Cartman, in agony over having to wait three weeks for the release of the new Nintendo Wii, and suffering from extreme insomnia, hallucinations, and an inability to stop staring at the clock, decides to freeze himself. When his mother drags him out of the refrigerator he convinces his friend Butters to bury him in the snow in the mountains so he can pass the time in a state of deep cryonic suspension. In another episode, Cartman and friends, in hopes of defeating a World of Warcraft opponent, play non-stop for days, drink only Redbull, and grow fat, filthy, and covered in acne. Such cautionary tales may seem bizarre, but they are rooted in reality.
There is still much debate within psychiatry and psychology about whether Internet addiction should be classified as a formal mental disorder, but there is consensus that overuse is a serious, growing problem. Signs of pathological dependence include a preference for chat rooms, social networking, and online role-playing games over interacting with real friends and family in real life and in real time. Other symptoms are losing track of time when web surfing and playing mobile games, and not completing tasks or meeting responsibilities. And it's time to be concerned when you observe your child relying on online activity as a means of alleviating feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, or stress, or denying extreme use when confronted.
Even when boys and girls are not addicted, excessive use of devices can have serious consequences.
What are the consequences of young people spending too much time online?
By spending so much time in front of screens, our children's lives become information rich but experience poor. Excessive use can result in social isolation, an underdeveloped love for reading, eyestrain, bad grades, poor posture, a pasty complexion-and difficulty navigating important real-world situations later in life.
From my research interviewing employers about the characteristics of their interns and job applicants, I've learned that many of these young adults are very accomplished academically but have developed habits that hurt them on job interviews, such as retaining the ultra casual mode of online communication when answering questions, or revealing too much personal information because they're accustomed to the public diary of Facebook. They are also at a disadvantage because of having missed out on sufficient exposure to the rich set of cues people have always used to frame their responses in face-to-face conversations: hearing the tone of another person's voice, seeing his or her body language, smelling pheromones, responding spontaneously/thinking on your feet.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and founder of the "No Child Left Inside" movement, summarizes extensive research showing that if kids don't spend enough time using all five senses in the three-dimensional world, they are at greater risk for obesity, attention disorders, fearfulness, and depression. Spiritually, too, they are deprived of the restorative power of nature. If you shoot a slingshot on your phone to launch an imaginary angry bird, you get a split second of satisfaction. In contrast, if you're on a hike and hear songbirds, or discover a running brook or see a rainbow, you may feel moved to celebrate God's creations by saying Shehecheyanu, the prayer of gratitude for bringing you to a sacred moment.
Do some parents also overuse digital devices?
Besides the usual temptations to "marry our machines," there are now new seductions for devoted parents. Some are sucked into their child's school's web portals. These poetically named Illuminate, Teacher-ese, Edmoto, Pinnacle, Snapgrades, and Powerschool programs give parents access to their children's grades, even on a quiz, the moment the teacher posts it, or information about whether or not the child handed in a paper. Originally these portals were instituted as a way for low-income parents who were working two jobs to monitor their kids' progress; but now they've become a surveillance tool for helicopter parents, who often snoop to reduce free-floating anxiety about their child's performance. Other parents feel isolated and lonely and find a balm in the vicarious stimulation of their child's online world. It's easy to rationalize: I'm just checking to make sure she's behaving appropriately, not in any trouble. In truth, when parents invade the social network of a responsible, reliable, and accountable child, they are engaging in a disrespectful intrusion, equivalent to reading a child's diary.
Many parents are also constantly checking their own devices. While Jewish tradition offers us the opportunity to recite the Modeh Ani prayer, saying "Thank you God for returning my soul to me," immediately upon awakening in the morning, more and more people tell me they reach for the phone before rising from bed, as if to say, "Thank you God for returning my iPhone to me." The three-year-old daughter of one of my patients gently directed her father who'd returned home from work in the Blackberry posture-hands elevated, head down-"Daddy. Sit down. Lie back." From a child's perspective, these devices serve as an uninvited family member or the favored sibling, preventing him from having his parents' attention.
What other Jewish lessons can we learn?
Jewish activities offer powerful antidotes to the invasion of the machines.
My favorite form of respite is Jewish summer camp. The children are unplugged (see "Camp Unplugged") and in nature, bonding, and using all their senses, through prayer and candles and grape juice and challah and song.
Being aware of such Jewish ethical standards as derech eretz (good manners, proper behavior) and middot (good character traits)-which are taught in Jewish day and religious schools-can encourage young people to practice discernment in curating their digital imprint. Being cognizant ofhabanat panim (refraining from public humiliation of yourself or others) can lead to practicing tsnuit (modesty), as well as shmirat lashon hara and rechilut (guarding one's speech, avoiding gossip, talebearing, and slander) by refraining from posting showy or crass images or messages. Hakarat hatov (recognition of the good/gratitude in our real lives) can be applied by noticing a negative or cynical bias in online interactions. Families can practice shalom bayit (peace in the house) by implementing rules about digital intrusion and preoccupation to reduce daily friction, and by protecting time for face-to-face relationships.
Is there anything else parents should know?
Parents need to recognize that their children need the Internet as an outlet from the controlled and high-pressured life we've imposed on them. Past generations of kids could play outside without supervision on a summer night. Today's kids are not free to hang out at the corner drugstore or in a vacant lot. They are cloistered, spending long hours in school and in adult-supervised after-school activities.
In today's world the Internet is the corner stoop.
That's why it is essential that parents devote time to updating their own technical skills. I advise moms and dads: Don't risk losing your child in the cyber wilderness. As an Internet-savvy parent, you can keep an eye on your child's travels and companions, just as you do in real life. Putting fences in place allows the whole family to travel freely and discover unexpected treasures, connections, and delights. In this way, the energy driving the digital revolution can enrich your family's life, as it transforms how we interact with each other, with the larger Jewish community, and with the wide world.