“Student well-being today is inextricably linked with the digital technologies that run through the middle of kids’ profoundly connected lives” (NAIS, 2019).

Although this quote is focused on students, this concept rings true for anyone old enough to own a smartphone, tablet, or computer.  The challenges of successfully navigating the benefits of technology, being mindful of technology’s detrimental effects, and intentionally disconnecting technology from our lives are present for all us; thus it is important to be informed and act as role models when navigating the trials of “being connected.” 

In this month’s A View From the Nest, I hope to provide insight and support—especially as families are faced with the inevitable integration of technology in their children’s lives.

As children navigate the world of social media, it is often assumed that this online environment is the root cause for adolescents’ poor mental health. However, a broader view is necessary. First, Professor Russell Viner asked we shift our focus, stating, “While we obsess a lot about social media, how much do we obsess about how much our young people sleep? Not very much, but it is a more important factor actually in determining [children’s] mental health.” Keeping this in mind, he suggests parents keep phones out of children’s bedrooms in order to help provide the opportunity for the greatest amount of sleep at night, especially for teenagers who need up to 10 hours per night.  Second, today’s youth straddle two worlds: real world and digital world. This dichotomy amplifies the wide variety of social skills required that were not necessary 10 years ago, much less during the modern parent’s own childhood. Dr. Dasha Nichols of Imperial College London advocates for the importance of parents knowing their children’s “social environment online as much as they do in the real world” as both play an integral role in the psychological development of youth. Furthermore, Nichols emphasized an important distinction: “The use of social media by children has very little impact on their levels of life satisfaction,” but the amount of time invested in social media correlates with having higher levels of “psychological distress especially for children who check social media more than three times a day.” Social media can help young people express themselves, connect with friends, and find support, but it can also “intensify the hardest parts of growing up,” which is why it is important for parents to be an educational tool for navigating social media interactions and monitoring the frequency of its use.

Common Sense Media (CSM) has thoroughly chronicled and researched the evolving impact modern day technology has on children’s lives. According to CSM, about 95% of US children will have a smart phone and/or mobile device by time they are teenagers, perpetuating the cultural need to be constantly connected. Since 2012, the percentage of teens connected to social media has risen from 34% to 70%. Amongst these teens, Snapchat (41%) is their main source of communication, followed by Instagram ( 22%), and Facebook (15%). Additionally, teens are constantly exploring various ways of communication through new apps that allow “geo location tracking, tagging friends who aren’t in pictures so they will receive notifications of events they’ve been left out, and managing multiple accounts so they can intentionally split their audiences.” Given the speed of app production and children’s abilities to consume apps–well before parents and schools are aware–it is a perpetual struggle to help children navigate their digital lives. Fortunately, CSM is at the forefront each year with resourceful articles, such as: “Thirteen Online Challenges Your Kid Already Knows About” and “Apps to Watch Out for in 2019.”

Despite high level of digital immersion, there is a self-awareness amongst teens of the juxtaposition they are placed in. A 2018 report revealed teens felt social media strengthened their relationship with families and friends and allowed them to be more connected and less lonely. However, there was also the self-realization of being caught up in FOMO (fear of missing out) when living life through a device. As a result, “72% of teens felt the need to immediately respond to texts, social networking messages, and other notifications.” Furthermore, teens recognized the daily distraction of devices prevents them from paying attention to other people, and creates personal frustration when friends prefer to be on their phones when together. As one high school student stated, “It’s like a parallel universe that you’re carrying around in your head every day and it’s really stressful.”

Recognizing that kids need help in and out of the home to navigate their digital world, companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon are providing better content filters and controls to parents. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article, “Keeping Tabs on Your Kids: The Latest Parental Controls From Apple, Google, and Amazon.” The article highlighted a few key features that can be beneficial to parents. Software updates from all three companies will allow parents to do everything from: block explicit content, set fixed gadget bedtime, and manage children’s contacts and control who they can communicate.

Keeping all of the previously mentioned in mind, Tiffany Shlain, author of The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, put forward a simplistic idea, which – I will admit – is hard to do at times. Unplug from devices and screens once a week; take a “technology Shabbat.”  Just as kids feel the constant need to stay connected, so do adults who find themselves staying connected to work on the weekends, as opposed to truly resting and giving attention to family or themselves. Per Shlain, “We [need to re-define] work and rest in our 24/7, always-on, always available culture…to take a hard look at the boundaries.” If we are going to be role-models for children and guide them as digital and real-life citizens, we all must prioritize and allow ourselves to disconnect and not harbor feelings of guilt or FOMO.


Referenced articles:

The case for a tech Shabbat in a too-connected world (Boston Globe, 2019)

Children’s lack of sleep more harmful than social media (The Guardian, 2019)

Helping Kids Navigate Their Digital Lives (NAIS, 2019)

Keeping Tabs on Your Kids: The Latest Parental Controls From Apple, Google, and Amazon (Wall Street Journal, 2019)

Justin L. Smith

Head of School