Technology 101: Safety, Balance, and Awareness

Technology is almost a sentient being, having a will of its own that projects itself inexorably into our lives. While these ubiquitous devices, that often feel like extensions of ourselves, have extraordinary benefits, use of them has an impact on the brain. The brain has an internal gardener that is forever pruning back some neural networks, while allowing others to grow and thrive. We must keep this in mind as we consider child development in the digital age. How much screen time is too much? How do we help our children achieve balance? Which cyber activities are the most beneficial, and which carry the greatest risks? To answer these questions, we need to take a developmental approach, one that is mindful of the milestones children need to complete at different stages in their growth.

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The goals for the school-age child, let’s say 6-10 years of age, are to reinforce the development of real-world skills and a sense of competence or mastery. They also need to become adept at establishing and maintaining relationships with peers, along with playing in ways that foster the ability to resolve conflict and to strategize. They must acquire in these early years the ability to control themselves, or self-regulate, and parents need to help them begin to learn responsibility by doing homework, chores around the house, and getting themselves ready for school and other duties. One of the great risks during this stage is that video games, and games on the smart phone, will become a primary source of entertainment, and a substitute for adventure. When this happens, we often see stagnation in social skills, and even avoidance of interaction with adults. In addition, children who get heavily engaged in these activities neglect homework and household chores.

This is becoming increasingly common! A tendency toward excessive, or even addictive, indulgence in cyber-based amusements also seems to be rooted in these early years. Therefore, it become crucial for parents to take steps to foster a family dynamic that sets limits and expectations for technology, as well to encourage discussion around this topic, especially with regards to Internet safety. In my book, Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, I recommend that families make technology a frequent topic of discussion. Consider, as part of such discussions, talking about and putting in place the following recommendations that are designed to help you raise balanced and competent children, as well as to maximize family time.

Kevin’s Top Five Technology Tips

1. Have at least some tech-free time as a family. Don’t allow smart phones at the dinner table, for example.
2. In addition to tech-free time, have tech-free zones. Many families I work with choose to use the family room for this purpose. Cell phones, video game consoles, laptops, iPads, and computers are not allowed in there.
3. Set a maximum time allowed on video games and the computer. I recommend no more than two hours a day.
4. For each minute spent on the computer or video game, require a corresponding minute of exercise. This will allow you to combat the tendency for technology to create sedentary and obese children.
5. No TV’s, computers, or video game consoles in the bedroom.

Incidentally, parents must follow these rules too! If you allow your children to police you as well, it will empower them, and serve to create a more harmonious and balanced family. With these steps, parents can communicate the all-important principle that Internet access is not a right but rather a privilege. Meeting target behaviors and certain expectations are required in order to receive and maintain that privilege.

These early school years are also a good time to start teaching about Internet safety. They need to be made aware of several important factors:

1. Passwords are not to be shared.
2. Screen names should not convey identifying information.
3. Never give out your address, age, or phone number online.
4. Report any bullying activities to a parent.
5. If someone you do not know is trying to converse with you online, do not respond and tell a parent.

As your child gets close to the teen years, this discussion should include mention of sending out inappropriate material via text, social networking, and email, and discuss legal ramifications of such activities. In addition, of course, you should make your teen aware that anything he or she posts online could become part of an enduring record that might come back to haunt him or her. In next week’s post, I will go into the implications of technology for teens in greater depth. No matter what the age group, however, the overriding principles are the same: safety, balance, and awareness.

I was recently featured on several news stations regarding the violent language children are exposed to in online gaming.  It is a short piece. Click here to watch.

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It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new, untrodden ways. -Dr. Hans Asperger

Autism has a lot to teach the world, but most of us don’t have any idea about the nature of the condition, outside of sound bites we hear on the news. The autism spectrum describes a wide array of symptoms. Some individuals “on the spectrum” are quite high functioning, while others have significant cognitive challenges. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas :

• Communication – both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling).
• Social – such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
• Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) – such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.

A recent study, announced a few days ago, featured data about the screen preferences of children with autism spectrum disorders (ADSs). Given the above symptoms, it should come as no surprise that, when given the chance for screen time, children with ASDs choose television and video games over social and interactive media, such as e-mail, online chatting, and Facebook. This preference for socially-isolating screen time could interfere with children’s socialization and learning, researchers warned. The study appears online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

While socialization represents a key area of concern for parents of children with an ASD, today’s tendency toward cyber-mediated isolation should leave all parents worried. Autism is, as Dr. Asperger asserted, a predisposition to turn or stay away from the world. While I agree with him that this tendency does bring some great gifts, it also imparts significant liabilities. We have a population of young people that increasingly “relates” to others through cyber media, and we do not yet know the long-term consequences of this trend.

I continue to be concerned that our young people, not just those with ASDs, are undergoing a neuronal pruning. Like a gardener who fertilizes and stakes certain plants, while weeding out others, the brain is constantly building networks of synapses, while pruning out redundant or unneeded ones. I suspect this process is at work in our collective cerebral garden; the neural networks involved in social interaction are suffering. I worry that significant swaths of society are growing up without the tools they need to successfully navigate the complexities of human relationships. While folks with ASDs have a neurological challenge that makes social interaction difficult, many “neurotypical” people CHOOSE to isolate.

My fears for the future are rooted in a growing body of scientific research. A study done in the United Kingdom, for example, found that young males who spent several hours playing online, role-playing video games exhibited the same personality traits as people with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The more time people spent playing these games, the researchers found, the more likely they were to show three specific traits usually associated with Asperger’s syndrome: neuroticism and a lack of extraversion and agreeableness. People with high levels of neuroticism have a propensity toward persistent negative states, such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. Low levels of extraversion and agreeableness correspond to a mindset that is unsuited to positive and mutually-beneficial interactions with others. The fact that excessive video games can produce these tendencies shows that they impact the brain, at least temporarily. What is unknown is whether or not this impact can become permanent over time.

Texting is another cyber medium that presents a potent challenge to young people. Research shows that conversation involves more than just words: 7 percent is the actual content of your message, 38 percent the tone of your voice, and 55 percent body language. Overly reliant on texting, today’s teens miss a good deal of conversational clues. Effective communication requires all three components; a text message automatically eliminates two of them. The result is miscommunication and a total breakdown of conversation, which will impact adult relationships, especially professional and romantic ones. The University of Calgary recently reported that texting also has a negative impact on people’s linguistic ability to interpret and accept words. While texting does involve lots of new abbreviations, it is a communication medium characterized by “rigid linguistic constraints.” Participants in the study who reported higher levels of texting had an associated lack of openness to new words, suggesting that the medium does not lend itself to expanding one’s vocabulary. It disturbs me to think that texting may well be limiting our competence with language and interpersonal communication.

Some would say that digital technologies have transformed our lives, while others would view them as agents of destruction. I see both the positive and negatives, but urge our society to take a more honest and circumspect look at the dark side. I began this discussion with autism because I see a parallel between the social challenges faced by people with ASDs and the self-imposed social isolation that is often the result of cyber media. I wish to underscore that ASDs are conditions rooted in neurobiology, and that video games, cell phones, and the Internet can isolate us so much that some of the same social challenges characteristic in ASDs are appearing with greater frequency in the general population. What worries me most is that we are changing the wiring of our brains, favoring neuronal networks that involve socially-isolating behaviors over those required for face-to-face interaction. Incidentally, I do actually agree with Dr. Asperger. I have known some incredible people with ASDs, one of whom is the architect of this website!

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