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The Gates Family Agrees to Delay Smartphones for Kids

“I think back to how I might have done things differently…  I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets.”  —Melinda Gates

This is a common line of thinking for many technology experts. Perhaps it is because they know exactly how powerful this technology is;  perhaps they realize that, as with all new discoveries, the first generation is always the experimental group. Perhaps they’ve done their research and know that a teen brain is just not prepared to handle the tremendous amount of distraction, temptation and, well, addiction pressure these devices impose.

Melinda continues,  “Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.”

Why do technology leaders in our country have such strong opinions when it comes to their own kids? They have a different view from the “front of the line” and they have personally seen things that we have not seen yet. Often they also take extra steps to send their kids to low-tech schools and limit screen access and screen time in their homes, as the late Steve Jobs did.

7 Reasons Kids Don’t Need a Smartphone:

  1. Teens don’t have the right tools.  The experts have done their brain research, afterall they are hiring the neuroscientists to make technology devices alluring and appealing. Experts know that teen brains are not as developed as adult brains and the area needed to resist distractions and temptations and to make good judgments will not develop fully till the age of 25.  Teens are not equipped to make good choices on a tool that is so powerfully equipped to override their common sense.  Our teens may look like adults, but they are not.
  2. Teen brains adapt to what they do.  The teen brain is in the process of reorganizing itself to adapt to its environment. It is strengthening pathways that are used frequently and pruning connections that are not being used. If teens practice empathy, they will get better at being empathetic. If they practice self-control, it will get easier for them to exhibit delayed gratification, impulse control and patience. Empathy and self-control cannot be practiced on a screen. In fact, kids who overuse video games and social media risk losing those skillset pathways during critical development years.
  3. Screens are not neutral; they are a stressful activity.  Games and smartphones also set off an exciting concoction of neurochemicals in the brain, at no extra charge to the user. These chemicals cause a cascade of physical changes including stress and anxiety in a staggering number of teens. Putting digital distractions and temptations in their paths 24/7 seems negligent, even cruel, when you consider their inability to deal with the challenge.
  4. Teens and tweens can’t control the craving.  Video games and smartphones are irresistible, addictive technologies. Tech companies hire neuroscientists into their “test labs” who ensure the games and apps are engaging the user’s brain compulsion loop with the goal of getting us hooked. We know how hard it is for us to put down our devices, and our brains have fully “matured”! One child against a thousand neuroscientists is not a good match, and the experts know it.
  5. Teens are most vulnerable to outside influences. Teens are trying to establish their identity and how they fit into their peer world. As parents, we want our kids coming home to get their values established instead of looking for them online 24/7.
  6. Relying on screens does not cultivate true communication skills. The experts know what it takes to be successful in business. They want their kids to learn how to look people in the eye, to have a firm handshake and to practice other social skills that are not learned through texting, by playing a video game or by engaging others primarily on social media.
  7. Early addictions are the worst.  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says that teen years are the highest risk period for future lifetime addiction problems and that addictive screens can easily pave the neuronal pathways for future addictions. Behavioral addictions can form when you use a behavior (games, social media, food, shopping, etc.) to soothe an emotional problem (loneliness, unloved, feeling left out, etc.). Furthermore, the human brain will set these behaviors (coping skills) in long-term memory to be retrieved again when that same emotional need arises.

What can parents do?

  1. Talk with your teens about teen brain development and everyone at your home will relax a little more when day-to-day stress occurs. You can start here to begin the discussion.
  2. Look for ways to move social time offline. Initiate in person social skills in daily life. Teens need your help to do this because they will naturally want to go to their easy screen instead.
  3. Replace screen time with other activities, sports and hobbies and start new family traditions. Remember to put your phone down when you are with your kids.
  4. Delay social media and video games.  Give your kids a break—they need you to step up and take control of this stress in their lives because they can’t reduce it on their own. They only have one childhood; experts know that there is more to life than the next post, the next like or the next level. Our kids have the rest of their lives to interact with the world via screens, but such a short time to be influenced by family.
  5. Use humor! One of our secret weapons as parents (that we don’t use enough) is our ability to lighten things up and de-stress the screen conflict that involves our kids.  Don’t get upset when your teens beg for more screens! Decide ahead of time that you will not allow a screen to control their happiness, your family or them. Put it in perspective for them. Do not argue with your kids over screen time! Parent like a coach: Review what’s not working, set new rules and then review again.

After all the research I’ve done, I can tell you without a doubt, that the experts are well aware of the power of technology—they are innovating, and empowering our lives in new ways everyday. However, being at the head of the pack gives them a better vantage point: They see what is coming around the corner and, for that reason, they keep a sharp eye on their own home fronts. It’s never too late to make a change, even if that means taking back the smartphone from your kids.  Let’s learn from the experts and take a fresh look at the screens in our kids’ lives. We don’t want to look back years from now and wish we had done things differently.

 

For books that deal with the relationship between technology and brain development, please visit the Resources page.