When I was growing up, a selfie wasn't even a thing, let alone a dictionary-defined action that requires skill and several takes to avoid fat-face syndrome. But today, little kids—such as my six-year-old niece—know exactly how to capture one from a flattering angle, slap a filter on and send it on out to someone who finds them cute, all in under 60 seconds.
I'm their millennial auntie, so my nieces and nephews know that when my phone comes out it's time to play with Snapchat functions or make funny Stories on Instagram. It's become the way I bond with them, while also establishing my Instagram persona as a "cool aunt"—you know, the one who takes adorable photos eating froyo with my nieces at 2 pm and then uploads a series of Stories singing and dancing to "Mi Gente" until four in the morning.
"Auntie, can we do some snappies?" is my Gen-Z-niece Alexandra's version of the outdated "can we play Candyland?" And, as younger siblings do, her ten-month-old sister, Anna Sofia, follows along with her expressive eyes, implying wordlessly: I want to be part of the fun, too. As a 27-year-old, I find this hilarious. But as a psychologist, my tech-infused interactions with them sometimes make me cringe. These interactions reflect my own technological dependency as an adult. It also makes me wonder what I'm modeling to my nieces and other parents who seek my advice, especially since it's well-known that our tech addiction (which we inevitably share with the kiddos that hang out with us) is likely not great for them.
The studies about screen time and technology in children are overwhelmingly conclusive: Overexposure to technology has detrimental effects on children's healthy development. It can cause an over-release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's pleasure center. Within regular levels, dopamine can have wonderful effects in our bodies, like an increase of motivation, joy, euphoria and self-confidence. But too much of it can cause increased agitation, anxiety, insomnia and hyperactivity.
"Dopamine hits in the brain can feel almost addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection," psychologist Liraz Margalit wrote in a Psychology Today piece. Technological overexposure also distracts children from engaging in developmentally necessary activities essential for an appropriate cognitive, socio-emotional and motor development.
When compared to the copious amount of research related to children's technology usage, very little focus has been placed on parental accountability. A recent study published in Developmental Psychology looks at parents' social networking and face-to-face interactions with their children.
In the study, researchers trained 38 mothers to teach their two-year-olds two novel words, one at a time. One of these two teaching cycles was interrupted by a cell phone call. The results showed that children learned the word when there were no interruptions, but not when there were.
"Researchers were talking about kids and technology, but no one was talking about parents," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, faculty fellow in the department of psychology at Temple University and one of the authors of the study. Hirsh-Pasek explains that they were interested to highlight the importance of uninterrupted eye-to-eye conversations. "When we are on our phone or on our laptops," she adds, "we're constantly disrupting these conversations."
Hirsh-Pasek mentions the term "second-hand screening" as something we should all be wary of. While we might think a laptop in the background or Snapchat stories automatically on play does not affect parental interactions with children, "they certainly disrupt and distract parents from cultivating these human-to-human interactions and connections." The findings of their study, and what they hope to help parents realize, is that "there are certain features in humans that are worth preserving, and human-to-human connection and conversation is one of them."
The idea of putting down your phone every time you're with your child is daunting for parents in this digital era—particularly young parents. So… to Snapchat or not to Snapchat? Thankfully, it's not all black or white. Social media and other apps can spark a lot of fun and learning with children when used with control.
Research from 2014 describes millennials as "a generation that has been greatly shaped by the technological advances present during their childhood, college career and into the workplace," 96 percent of them being on at least one social network. My guess is that many of them are on three or four. I worry about my niece's generation getting as hooked—or more—than we are, especially when I see the little one speed-crawling to seize my phone. But this is not always terrible; there are two sides to every coin.
Débora Aleman, a 27-year-old mother from Panama City, Panama, who regularly uploads at least five Instagram stories a day with her year-and-half old son, says "the most challenging thing I've found as a parent in this digital era, is setting an example." She purposely carves out two hours of quality play time with her son a day—divided into his morning and pre-bedtime routine—with a strict rule of zero electronics. "It's tough because even we, as adults, are hooked on social media and struggle with shutting our devices off." She adds that the key for her relationship with her son is finding balance.
She mentions that her son has recently discovered Instagram stories, along with the rest of the free world. "He absolutely loves playing with the different filters and is eager to see what this magical app will do to his face," she says. Aleman is all for for parents using apps with their kids, but with moderation. "The key is balance," she says, "and teaching your kids that while there's time for cool filters, it's also important to encourage traditional play time as well."
I could argue that we are the most curious and self-driven generation yet, which is why findings like the ones in Hirsh-Pasek's study should only motivate us to become more self-aware and find an appropriate balance between traditional parental duties and our technologically savvy selves. "We're in the wild west of the digital world," Hirsh-Pasek says; "this is only the beginning and we'll know more about the repercussions in the future. But, what we can do is analyze what's going on right now."
According to her, there are no hard rules regarding regulating just how much time you and your kid should go tech-free. Parents should do what feels right. For some, that may mean deleting some apps to eliminate the temptation. For others, it might mean showing your kids how to use social media with caution. Hirsh-Pasek does recommend that you enjoy your kid and put away all the gadgets for at least a few minutes a day.
A smidge of self-awareness and the universal parental need to emotionally connect with your kid are enough to put Hirsh-Pasek's recommendations into practice pretty easily. Her recs are also a great indicator that you don't need to shun Instagram just yet. Maybe when in doubt just limit yourself to one puppy-filtered selfie a day.
Mariana Plata is a licensed psychologist in Panama, specializing in children and adolescents.
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