Raising a Digital Native | Omega

How can parents navigate a technologically saturated world to raise well-rounded, happy kids? Research shows responsible screen time is a good place to start.

Richie Byrne is the warm-up comedian for The Dr. Oz Show. One of his funniest jokes is when he asks people to turn off their cell phones, “If you don't know how to turn off your phone, don’t worry, we have a 9-year-old standing by to help you.”

Today's children have grown up surrounded by technology and they seem to understand how to work any device.

They're called digital natives.

“[Digital natives]...were all born after 1980, when social digital technologies, such as Usenet and bulletin board systems, came online,” write academics John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their book, Born Digital. 

Raising a digital native requires parents to make decisions that help prepare their tech-savvy kids for an increasingly digital world while ensuring they experience life off-screen, too. A good dose of common sense can take parents far, and now research is being published that gives parents solid information to aid their decision making.

Time Off-Screen Is Important

UCLA scientists found that sixth grade students who spent five days free of all technology (smartphones, televisions, and other screens) were more capable of reading human emotions than students who spent an average of four-and-a-half hours a day on electronic devices. 

"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, UCLA psychology professor and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues—losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people—is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

Another small study found that children who spend up to 10 hours a week outside (away from technology) developed a strong bond with nature and experienced feelings of peace, happiness, and a sense of belonging to the world.

How Much Screen Time Is OK?

When it comes to screen time, many parents struggle with how to set limits. In this area the research suggests there is a threshold that is better for kids’ overall health.

According to the Learning Habit Study, a 3-year exploration that looked at 46,000 families with children in grades K–12 in the United states, there are definite consequences of too much screen time.

The study found children who get four hours of screen time a day take 20 times longer to fall asleep than kids who have limited media time. 

The study suggests a "safe zone" of 45 minutes a day—"after 45 minutes of media, children's grades, sleep, social skills, and emotional balance start to decline." The "danger zone" begins "slightly before two hours with a half point drop in children’s GPA." At 4 hours a day, GPAs dropped a full point and middle school students who spent this much time online were unable to get A’s in math or English.

Parenting Style Makes a Difference, Too

Another place where parents can make a difference is in their parenting style.

The Learning Habit Study found that empowerment parenting, which uses “thoughtful rules and effort-based praise to reward desired behavior,” is more effective in promoting grades, sleep, focus, and emotional health than a traditional, punishment-based parenting style.

“The good news for parents is that children's learning habits can be positively shaped by empowerment parenting techniques,” said Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, clinical director at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology. “When children are encouraged to persist, to try new things, and to take more responsibility for things they can control, they develop grit. These children learn from their mistakes and develop better decision-making skills than kids who aren't held accountable.”

Parents can set up guidelines, empower their kids to follow them by giving them latitude to make their own decisions about how to meet the guidelines, and reward them when they do.

Rebecca Jackson, coauthor of The Learning Habit book, says, "It's just like life. First we work and then we get paid. First we do our household chores and then we get the media use. Parents who are waking up in the morning and letting their children watch TV first thing before school are really missing the boat here."

Ultimately, "raising digital natives is all about embracing the upsides of technology while navigating the challenges," says Devorah Heitner, founder and director of Raising Digital Natives.

One of her biggest messages to parents is to support kids with empathy and mentorship so you can nurture kind and thoughtful interactions, both digitally and in person.

© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies