As a wellness professional with two young children, I’m drawn to a recent study and best-selling book by Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University: “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy.” From the impact it has on our lives and physical bodies to the developmental challenges it poses for our children, technology is the biggest challenge facing parents today.
And, in fact, it’s not just teens. Parents are having the same problems with screens and social media that their children are.
The pervasive problem of technology comes from social media and the anticipation of a Snap or an Instagram post. The social and psychological triggers that occur afterward also do damage. Over the past decade, the number of teenagers and children reporting suicidal thoughts has doubled, coinciding directly with growth of personal technology and social media usage.
Twenge describes the “psychic” cost to children as they grow consumed with screen activity, whether the screen is in front of them or not.
Does this feel familiar to you as an adult, too?
Those iGens spending less time in front of a screen, though — playing sports, connecting with friends face-to-face — are less likely to be unhappy and depressed.
As technology becomes increasingly inseparable from every activity, it’s vital to acknowledge that we adults are stuck on technology, too. Adults are the fastest-growing group of technology users, according to David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. We are running a high risk of being just as disconnected as our children, just as distracted and diffuse.
Pop quiz: When was the last time your child asked you a question or wanted to talk when you were on your phone or other device? Today, or yesterday? (Right now?)
In order for parents to address and take charge of our children’s technology use, we must also take charge of our own relationship to technology generally — and to social media specifically — in the context of raising a family and running a household. Although the reasons may be obvious, it’s helpful to point them out.
Adults and children are now using technology together at the same time, under the same roof. Children learn through imitation. All primates behave this way, and humans are no different. The obsession children have over when they’re getting a phone is directly correlated to watching us parents repeatedly get lost in the screen. (Just try to count how many times in one day you touch your phone.) So it isn’t even that we need to spend more time worrying about how technology is taking our children away from us, it’s that we need to lift our own heads and realize we are also taking ourselves away from them.
We are, in fact, modeling this behavior for our children.
Regularly separating any human body, and its mind, from a device, whatever it weighs and for however long it is used, is essential for mental and physical wellness. This applies most to children, because their brains are not yet formed and their bodies are still developing. They are the population most vulnerable to societal imbalances (from disease to pollution to any kind of abuse), and in this way they are mirroring our own behavior. They don’t know how to interpret and analyze their feelings of disconnection. They need our help to do so.
The main way to embrace this issue, to really own it as adults and as parents, is one step at a time. There is no one right answer. Every family has its own rhythms and boundaries, and financial and cultural realities and values. Both parents and children must be part of the solution together.
Any practice in mindfulness, such as yoga, meditation and basic breathing practices (taught in all mind-body-spiritual disciplines), lay the groundwork for change. These practices create an opposite effect on a person to that of a phone. Using a device transports you to a mental and physical experience disconnected from your immediate environment and awareness of your breath. Meditation and mindfulness, and much more simply, one long deep breath (inhale and exhale), bring you back to immediate awareness of yourself and your surroundings.
The process is very simple, but it takes commitment and follow-up. Following are five easy ways to shift the balance by modeling and through teamwork. All of these steps can (and should) be done by parents and children together.
- Start with yoga, or with any desired physical activity that gets the body and the breath moving. Walk around the block, run, cycle, anything. Do any activity at all that leaves the phone behind or at least zipped in the pocket. Notice each breath, or some breaths, or any breathing at all, and internalize that at this moment you are aware and connected to your body. YouTube has hundreds of free yoga channels, and such low-cost sites offer online yoga classes. And the best option: Walking with your kids outside is free.
- Learn basic mindfulness techniques. (Look for places such as the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, which offers many free sessions). Spend your weekly or regular spiritual time (church, mosque, synagogue) recognizing that you are aware and present, and you are a choosing a nourishing offline activity that feeds your body and brain.
- Set rules around technology in your home: All devices in a basket until dinner is over. No tech one hour before bed, only educational tech during the week, and entertainment tech on weekends. Most of us have tried this, but combined with the simplest, shortest of mindful activities (#1 and #2), you will be able to enforce the boundaries more clearly and will be more grounded and flexible when they need to be changed (which they will).
- Be accountable to yourself and to everyone in your home with the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. Own your part of it and model the behavior you want to see.
- Talk with friends and build a community of like-minded parents working on this issue. Teach and discuss your thoughts and discoveries to your children, over dinner, after homework or over the weekend. Learn mindful unplugging alongside your children, and show them you’re as committed, and as present, as you’re asking them to be.
Kim Weeks has been in the health and wellness industry for 16 years, beginning yoga and meditation in the 1990s to manage a stressful Wall Street career. She eventually left Wall Street to open a yoga studio. Find her on kimweekswellness.com.
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