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THE LAST WORD: Important to limit screen time

Kerry Hubartt

My wife and I spend as much time as we can with our grandchildren – some more than others in order to help out where most needed in child care and transportation.

Whenever we are “in charge” of those precious lives, we are constantly aware of the influences they face each day, including (and especially) the omnipresence of technological devices.

We try, sometimes not aggressively enough, to regulate and moderate our grandkids’ use of “screen time” when they are with us.

Why? After all, letting my granddaughter or grandson use my iPhone or iPad to kill time or to serve as a “babysitter” of sorts keeps them occupied and out of trouble, right?

Not necessarily so.

Screen time has become a compulsion for some of my grandchildren, as it has for kids of literally all ages across the country. As it has – let’s be honest – with adults. The addiction to screen time in my younger days was television, and later video games on the computer desktop. Now it is dominated by handheld devices that have made the common scenario throughout the world a tragicomic landscape of people in every situation (even driving) staring at their handheld devices.

So after I read an article (in my email, of course) from John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center, titled “Don’t Leave Kids to Their Own Devices,” I had to share it with my kids as a warning to take this issue seriously in their own families.

Stonestreet, an author and speaker, is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the daily radio and podcast voice of BreakPoint, a nationally syndicated commentary on the culture founded by the late Chuck Colson.

The article cites some sobering statistics. The average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is 13, according to the American Psychological Association. Some see it as young as 5.

Surveys show one in five 12-year-olds have been contacted online by a predator, 42 percent of children have been cyber-bullied (harassed by means of an electronic device) and more than a third have been threatened online.

But there are other effects from the almost addictive compulsion to stare at these devices.

Stonestreet cited a doctor, writing in Psychology Today, who described how overuse of technology leaves kids “moody, crazy and lazy.”

“Phones and tablets overstimulate young nervous systems, resulting in disrupted sleep, fried reward circuits in the brain, multiplied stress and fractured attention spans. The younger the child, the worse the damage seems to become.”

In a recent article in WIRED magazine, Christopher Null, a film critic and father of two teenagers, attacks the argument that supervising our kids’ use of technology shows a lack of trust, and only serves to condition them “to accept totalitarian surveillance.” According to Null, children should have no expectation of privacy when it comes to their online activity.

Stonestreet adds that “the least loving thing you can do as a parent is to leave your kids to their own devices on the Internet.”

Here are some pretty strong suggestions from Stonestreet’s article that may seem extreme and difficult to implement – but the possible alternative consequences, I think, should be our impetus to seriously consider them.

Computers, tablets and phones should only be used in high-traffic areas of the home, never behind closed doors. Kids should have no way to keep secrets from us, and parents should know their passwords and let them know they can and will regularly check their activity online.

Stonestreet agreed with tech expert Sherry Turkey, a psychologist at M.I.T., who suggests establishing “tech-free zones,” such as the car, the dinner table and bedrooms.

Being the permissive grandpa that I am, it is often difficult for me to say no to something that seems as harmless as letting a grandchild play a game on my iPhone while driving in the car.

So I have told my own kids, I’m working on doing better when their kids are with me. And that’s why I sent Stonestreet’s article to them, so they can do better in setting guidelines for their kids, and my wife and I can follow their wishes when we are in charge.

But it’s more than just saying “no” to screen time. As Stonestreet wrote, “unless we say ‘yes’ to them as people and not just ‘no’ to their unbridled tech times, they won’t understand why we are making a decision that seems so abnormal in our culture.”

And none of that will work unless we develop strong, positive relationships with our children and grandchildren.

“Only in the context of a true relationship,” Null wrote, can we show our children who they are apart from their devices. Kids are kids, remember, and part of that relationship should be that the adults are in charge.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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