Young Boy With Computer
by Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
Parenting in a technological society is a more complex topic than I could have imagined when I read parenting books during my pregnancy. My daughters spent their young years growing up in two different decades. The first decade of my first child’s life, in 1991, did not offer many digital toys to hold her attention. Television and our land line reigned supreme for both rewards and consequences. My next daughter was born in 2004. Her first decade saw the invention of the smartphone, tablets, and a boom in social media options. Technology transformed my parenting.
As a social worker, I started integrating technology assessment and education into family sessions around 2004. One thing remains a constant; most parents I work with do not understand the impact of technology on their children. Most parents remain ignorant to their children’s behavior online.
Minecraft, Club Penguin, Neopets, Webkinz, YouTube, and similar websites offer a portal into the digital world for young children. Most parents did not grow up in the digital age, but their children create whole worlds and friendship circles through the Internet. The value of these technologies in children’s lives is hotly debated. A report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children describes studies tracking the negative effects of technology usage by children, including a link to childhood obesity, sleep and attention issues, and a decrease in academic performance. Digital assessment, education, and intervention are now a mandatory part of family therapy or parental skill building.
Here are six basic parenting areas to address with the families you serve.
1. Boundary assessment/plan
Often, I see parents complain about their children’s immersion in technology. Digital use is almost always associated in some way with the initial reason the family system seeks help. One of the first things we do is create a map of the child’s digital usage and behaviors. The parent’s homework is to track usage, frequented websites/apps, behaviors, and locations of use. Behaviors exhibited can include anger about boundaries, disconnection from family unit, or anxiety about not being able to use “X” technology. Education of parents includes parameters of digital tools according to appropriate age of introduction, goals of digital tools for development, and risk factors associated with each tool. The parents then consider monitoring and boundaries for use.
2. A new type of quality time
Encourage a period each day when the parents engage with their children and technology. Children love teaching their parents about what they are doing online. Parents can form a new appreciation for their children when they see their child’s imagination manifest in Minecraft or what makes them giggle on YouTube. This quality time should not take the place of quality time with their children exclusive of technology.
3. Healthy online relationships
It is never too early to teach children about positive relationships. Many children enter online relationships playing in massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming sites or by starting their first social media accounts. The social worker can help parents educate their children in understanding appropriate communication guidelines. Teach an approach to parents focusing on building trust and openness about the child’s online activities. Parents can participate or observe their child in games to model effective communication. Social workers can discuss with parents the need for rules on manners, spelling correctly, social cues, cooperative play, and safety. Social workers should stress the parents’ open and non-judgmental communication during tech time. Children will want parental participation if it is positive and fun.
4. A balanced approach to technology
I bet everyone reading this survived car rides without a phone or tablet to play with in the back seat. Parents have busy lives, and technology is an easy out. A child should be able to self soothe with multiple formats. Sometimes parents need permission to withhold technology, letting their children create solutions to their boredom. A balanced approach to technology periods, quality attention by parents, and technology-free play establish multiple avenues for a child’s ability to divert and soothe him- or herself. Once again, the emphasis is on a connected relationship.
5. Appropriate consequences
Offer parents the option of shifting consequences to a strengths-based orientation. Children respond well to an earning approach. Tying wanted behaviors to tech time encourages positive conduct with a reward the children enjoy. This approach helps place natural limits on technology time. The family can create a chart with many options for earning through chores, positive attitudes, language, and to alter negative behavior. Help parents create an effective amount of time given for each area. This will not work if parents are giving large time blocks. Parents can delay usage as a consequence of negative behavior, but they should not take away time earned. The most important aspect of this technique is following through. If the parents do not notice the “good” behavior consistently, the method will not work.
6. A product of their environment
Children are products of their parents’ patterns for technology use. Discussion of these patterns helps the social worker identify the difference between engaged, disengaged, and enmeshed family systems. The family system cannot change if a parent continues spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft on the computer or texts during family time. Using motivational interviewing techniques can help parents commit to their own shift in positive digital behaviors.
7. Continuing education
Technology changes rapidly. When working with families, include education for parents on using helpful websites and blogs for keeping up with the trends affecting their children.
For practitioners, being up to date on the research about effects, risks, and current fads for children is an ethical obligation. Many times, a technology component surfaces during my assessment of the presenting problem with a child or family. Being educated on digital practices enables you to provide a competent practice with your families.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is a lecturer at Dominican University. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog, Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice, to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.