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Kids and Technology: What Should We Really Worry About?

By Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D.

In my first meeting with parents, I usually ask about how they handle technology and media with their kids, and if they have any concerns. Here's a small sample of the replies:

"We don't allow too much TV – maybe a show or two a night – and we try to limit the computer until after they finish their homework. We're not thrilled with some of the things they've seen."

"My teenage daughter is addicted to her phone, and is constantly texting her friends and boyfriend. It drives us crazy!"

"Our 10 year old is always arguing that he should be allowed to play '
Call of Duty
.' We think it's way too violent."

Most of us can relate to concerns about time limits. We don't want our kids to become too preoccupied with the computer or their cell phones, and know that the word "addiction" is not too far-fetched for some teenage gamers and technophiles.

Worries about the content – of the video games our kids play, the movies they watch and internet sites they visit – are also prevalent among parents. It's a constant balancing act between giving our kids some leeway, and monitoring how much sex and violence they are exposed to at a young age.

What concerns me is something a little different. I'm worried if all the advancements in technology in the last few years have affected our kids in more fundamental ways. Put simply, are we seeing basic changes in the way today's kids play and think?

One of the cornerstones of child development is learning how to play. It's the key to learning to think abstractly and problem-solve, and helps kids develop empathy and a sense of mastery. To play, children have to feel comfortable being on their own and using their imagination.

If they spend too much time in front of the computer, video games and the TV, they're not going to have the opportunities to develop these abilities. I'm amazed at how many kids I see who are at a loss when it comes time to "just play" by themselves.

We've all read that we now live in a rapid-fire world, and that the successful people will be the ones who can quickly process and absorb bits of data and move on to the next stream of information. (Those of us who make our living by reflecting, analyzing, and encouraging a look at deeper emotions and thoughts can feel a little left out of that equation!)

But to succeed in school and to live a richer, more fulfilling and less stressed out life, our children also need to learn how to slow down and be mindful of their experience. The new technologies make this a little tougher. Jumping around on-line, texting during class and i-chatting during homework hours do not make for the most thoughtful generation.

Research is beginning to show that multi-tasking comes at a cost, namely of deep and reflective thinking. We may indeed see an emerging generation of fast reactors, but will they be able to focus on just one thing – an idea, a conversation, a book – in a meaningful way?

Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and the Director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, NY.  He is author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters. He has been profiled by The New York Times and has appeared in Parents Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Family Circle, as well as on The CBS Early Show.

To learn more about his work, visit www.drpauldonahue.com

Is technology robbing our children of their ability to "just play"? Are some of the more rewarding experiences of childhood passing them by? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by Paul O'Reilly, posted 1/20/2010, 7:07 AM:

See the report released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that children 8-18 are devoting over 7 1/2 hours per day to entertainment media - up over an hour a day from 5 years ago.

Comment by Claire Bonner, posted 1/19/2010, 7:55 PM:

Couldn't agree more. As an ex-elementary school teacher, I have become increasingly disillusioned about the way parents rely on technology to stimulate their kids, rather than providing environments in which they can interact with each other and learn the interpersonal skills that are so essential for all-round development. There is a time and place for video games and DVDs but they shouldn't be allowed to take the place of books, problem-solving and self-expression.
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