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Learning to focus on what's important: navigating a digital world

November 04, 2011

Sometimes parenting feels like a tightrope walk. Lean a little too much this way or that and you risk a long fall that ends with a painful thud. It feels like the only way to produce a physically, emotionally and developmentally healthy child is to walk an impossibly narrow line. And often, we as parents aren’t quite sure which line is the right line to walk in the first place.

Social media is an area where the tightrope feels especially tricky. How old should my child be before I let them join Facebook? How much time do I allow them to spend on the computer? Are social media outlets necessary for kids today to connect with their peers? Are online activities benefitting or harming their overall development?

Experts have been vocal about the risks of cyber-bullying, stranger danger and privacy risks, but we haven’t heard much about the effects of social media in a child’s developmental journey. Childhood is a continual process of learning to understand our world, but we don’t really know how the digital world is impacting our children’s experience.

New research is beginning to show how Facebook and other social media outlets affect the educational development of children and teens. A key finding in this study shows that when studying for an exam, most middle school and high school students are only able to focus for two to three minutes before giving in to their desire for more stimulating activities such as text messaging, Facebook, smartphone apps or online games.

After three minutes of studying, kids begin opening new windows on their computer or using their cell phone to satisfy their need for digital connection. They switch back and forth from studying to various online activities every couple of minutes. Not surprisingly, the students who spent more time engaged in online entertainment received lower test scores.

This study paints a picture of children and adolescents who are so distracted that they jump from one activity to the next, unable to focus on important academic activities for very long. Their study habits are a game of mental ping-pong, and it changes their ability to learn and integrate new information.

However, research shows that teens and pre-teens can also learn valuable skills as they experiment with socialization and communication online. The question is, how do we as parents walk the tightrope in order to find balance?

Here are some suggestions from the experts:

Institute a “tech break”

Ask your child to focus on their academic studies for fifteen minutes without interruption. Let them know that if they successfully complete this task, they will be given a one to two minute “tech break” in which they are free to update their Facebook status, send text messages or play online games.

Knowing they will be able to fulfill their desire for online connection, they can devote their full attention to academic study. They are able to use their break to satisfy the urge, recharge and get ready for another study time.

Set aside “sacred” time

Provide time for your family to connect with each other without the distraction of technology. This means you, too! Turn off your cell phones, email and television in favor of uninterrupted face-to-face interaction.

Talk about it

Share in your child’s experience with the digital world. Play video games with them, check out their social network and share websites that they enjoy. Encourage them to enjoy them in moderation and explain the need for balance.

My toddler is not yet nagging me to join Facebook. She does not yet have a cell phone that she hides under her pillow in order to send text messages when I think she is sleeping. She does, however, play Dora and Diego’s Vacation Adventure on my iPad. I encourage her to do so because she is learning and growing developmentally as she plays.

The challenge will be for me to watch carefully as she continues to grow in this digital world and teach her the balance necessary for well-rounded development. In a world with so many distractions at our fingertips, we have to learn to focus on what’s important.