Mobile devices: The influence on children

The rapid growth and development of technology comes with the increased use of mobile devices with children. Infants, young children and teenagers are beginning to form very close bonds to tablets, mobile phones, portable game consoles and handheld music players. This global trend seems to mirror a very real change in society as a whole where we are growing closer to technology and perhaps even dependent on it to have a fully functional day.

When technological devices are helpful

There are a number of benefits that arise from allowing or encouraging children to use mobile devices. To name a few, they could increase a child’s visual-motor coordination, response speed, reasoning skills and logical thinking. Many mobile devices allow for social contact and communication which provides an avenue for a two-way conversation between child and parents.

Some parents manage to find peace by providing children with a device that can offer some consoling during tough moments. It is a reliable means to help children keep busy, calm and perhaps distracted from difficult situations or painful feelings. Children appear to respond to using an electronic device to balance their internal world. For instance, tablets can be used successfully to entertain rowdy children and provide a sense of stillness within the home. They can provide an opportunity for parents to briefly take a step away from the parenting role to reenergise and refuel.

The growing person and technology

It should be asked “what happens when mobile devices are overused?” Might children grow dependent on the device when they’re faced with feelings they can’t manage on their own? Many teenagers and adults use technological devices as well as cyber spaces to express and process their emotions. Consider, for instance, the use of violent games as a means of expressing anger; or engaging in social media forums where one’s inner world can be shared with, and subsequently acknowledged (or not) by, the outside world.

When we examine human development, one of the most fundamental roles of the parent is to help the child tolerate their feelings and cope in the world. When the child faces unbearable emotions (such as frustration, anger or rage) the parent shows that these feelings are survivable by modeling a calm response. The parent will gently affirm the child’s reaction to the difficult situation by reflecting the predominant feeling in words and validating their experience. In this instance, these explosive emotions (and the responses attached) are diffused. If this method is followed consistently in their upbringing, the child will learn to diffuse their own feelings. This is called self-soothing.

In order for the parent to provide this response, they need to have available resources at the time of the difficult situation. Sometimes this isn’t possible. In today’s age, parents have so many responsibilities and need to meet so many external demands, that they often feel spent and exhausted. In these circumstances, parents might be comforted by the fact that a technological device can temporarily fulfill their role well enough while the parent takes their own time to self-sooth.

What can a parent offer that a device cannot?

The parent acknowledges and deals with the feelings and behaviour directly. If we were to consider anger as the primary feeling in a reaction, where the behaviour is destructive in nature, the parent would address the anger directly. The parent might say “you are angry that you cannot go to Jacob’s house to play.” Limits to the behaviour might also be expressed during this time “I can see that this makes you cross, but in this house we are not allowed to break things. In this house we use our words to express how we feel. Would you like to tell me how you feel about not going to Jacob’s house?” In this situation, the child feels acknowledged, understood and is assisted in self-soothing. What is more, the parent is providing the child a more adaptive response. Similar instances can be offered during other difficult moments such as extreme excitability, sadness or non-compliance.

Technological devices offer a space where feelings can be managed, but do so indirectly. The device can distract, draw attention away from or even act as a means of expressing feelings, but may not necessarily help the child to digest these feelings. In order for them to grow up being able to self-sooth, children need to have enough responses from caregivers where their feelings and reactions are tolerated, looked at and processed.

“Cyber” versus “real” play

One of the most vital aspects of development and learning is play. Playing allows children a space where they are able to express their inner world, expand their imagination and develop their creativity, learn though maneuvering and manipulating objects, built their verbal and nonverbal skills, understand how to share and take turns with other children as well as experience the world of other children and expand on their social skills. There are a number of other benefits of play that broadly help children develop cognitively, emotionally, socially and physically.

Cyber play is largely a solitary activity, where engagement is between the game and the person. Some online games have options to play with other persons in the world. This introduces a social element to gaming as one can often chat to others who are playing. Despite the benefits, these social forums can come with a number of challenges, such as cyber bullying, inappropriate comments or may expose readers to vulgar language. What is more, even though these communications are social in nature, they do not offer a real sense of a person-to-person interaction. Play in the real world can provide children a learning experience where they would have to manage themselves with others. Indeed, real play also bares the risk of being confronted with bullying and rude or vulgar comments, but the risk might be lessened when children play with others whom they can trust.

Another benefit of encouraging real play is that children learn to interact with three-dimensional objects and spaces. This helps develop visual perception, sensation and tactile sensitivity as well as motor coordination. There is so much value in allowing children to really engage in play with objects. Being able to manipulate and maneuver toys through imaginative play not only helps children to have spatial awareness and develop their motor skills, but also provides a space where they can orchestrate their own game and have a sense of control. Playing outside too has endless benefits. Being able to play with mud, water and sand, for instance, does wonders for brain development and learning. It also provides the child with something tangible and can generate feelings of fulfillment and mastery.

Technological devices: Yay or nay?

The question should not be whether or not our children should engage in technological devices at all. It should rather be: when and how much? As with anything in life, we abide by rules, boundaries and limitations. Perhaps the same premise should be applied to the use of devices when rearing children. Children, more than anyone need limits to be set in place. This is often done with sugar intake and TV viewing, and can therefore be done with the use of devices too. These limits are easily understood and relatively well adhered to when rules are set in place. A parent might say “only one fizzy drink before 14:00 allowed”. Limits to devices can be established in the same way, for instance, depending on the child’s age, one might say “you are only allowed to play with the [said device] 30 minutes before 16:00”. The question of ‘how much’ should be decided by the parents and be adhered to consistently.

The question of ‘when’ can be decided by either the child or the parent – depending on the child’s age. For infants, toddlers or younger children, parents might have more control over when the device is used. In these instances, it is urged that the parents reflect upon the purpose the device is serving at that time and how frequently it is being used. Taking a step back and observing patterns can help parents understand what is being achieved and why. For older children, they might independently seek out the use of the device. It might also be helpful to take note of the purpose the device serves at that time. Parents may notice that, for instance, the device is being used to manage a difficult situation – thus providing a means of escape and avoidance of feelings. This can be an insightful point for parents where they could address the predominant issue at hand and assist the child in managing whatever is going on for them.

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