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The hidden costs of letting your children be raised by screens and smart devices

To many parents, smartphones and iPads are wonderful babysitters — a funny Youtube video playing on a screen can work miles better than any pacifier or nanny. But this convenience has its costs.

Facebook recently published a blog post admitting that "when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward."

Jean Twenge — a psychology professor who penned the article "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" for The Atlantic magazine — believes that smartphones have created "a lonely, dislocated generation."

Twenge thinks members of what she calls iGen (born between 1995 and 2012) "are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. … Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent. … Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan."

"Kids used to compare themselves with their peer group at school or they'd watch TV and look at Fonzie on 'Happy Days' and say, hey, I'm not as cool as Henry Winkler," said Victor Strasburger, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine expert. "But now it's instantaneous comparison. Just log on to Facebook, log on to Instagram, and it's instantaneous comparison with a peer group or many peer groups. And so many kids feel like they don't match up."

Henry Winkler(center) as Arthur 'Fonzie' Fonzarelli in a scene from the television sitcom 'Happy Days', circa 1975.
Henry Winkler(center) as Arthur 'Fonzie' Fonzarelli in a scene from the television sitcom 'Happy Days', circa 1975.

That's because much of the technology that won your child's attention is driven by profits — it's a business, not a play date or parenting substitute. Many social media applications are engineered to be at least somewhat addictive, and often their business models depend on the apps' ability to monopolize users' time and attention.

The same logic applies to online gaming. For some game makers, "addictive" is the highest compliment to their products, since an "addictive" game will keep gamers engaged, in a subscription model and buying virtual goods.

Twenge says smartphones are responsible for a mental-health crisis among young people. But other researchers debate whether there's a direct causal relationship between excessive screen use and one's mental health, in large part because there hasn't been long-term research on children and smart devices.

"We have some objective data that kids are more stressed. The question is: Is it related to new technology or not?" Strasburger said. "Rates of anxiety and suicide started increasing with the advent of smartphones. Sleep has decreased dramatically with the advent of smartphones."

Meanwhile, a subcategory of internet addiction — gaming addiction — has received an official recognition. At the end of last year, the World Health Organization recognized "gaming disorder" in its list of mental health conditions.

Doug Gentile, a psychology professor who specializes in media study, defines gaming addiction as "an impulse control disorder. You know you should do your homework, but you just can't stop playing. You know you should go to bed, but just one more level. That you are not able to manage that impulse when you need to."

Hilarie Cash, who co-founded reSTART, a rehabilitation clinic for tech addicts, welcomes the addition from the WHO. "I hope that down the road they will broaden or add to it," Cash said. "I would like to see a broad category of Internet or screen or digital addiction, because that would then capture all of the different forms it can take."

FALL CITY, WA - MAY 13, 2016: (L to R) Anthony and Nikhil (last names withheld) wait for Dakota, the house dog, at reSTART, a rehabilitation center for digital media addiction, in Fall City, Washington on May 13, 2016. The reSTART program costs $25,000 for 45 days at the center, though stays can be anywhere from 45 and 90 days and the average stay is 55 days. (David Ryder for The Washington Post)
FALL CITY, WA - MAY 13, 2016: (L to R) Anthony and Nikhil (last names withheld) wait for Dakota, the house dog, at reSTART, a rehabilitation center for digital media addiction, in Fall City, Washington on May 13, 2016. The reSTART program costs $25,000 for 45 days at the center, though stays can be anywhere from 45 and 90 days and the average stay is 55 days. (David Ryder for The Washington Post)

We are living in a confusing age. On one hand, parents would like to educate their children using the latest tech inventions. On the other hand, parents also fear that their introduction could foster addictive behavior or expose children to inappropriate content.

Cash, who has treated many teenage boys who are addicted to internet and games, said, "The average age of exposure to porn is now about 9 years old." Bryant Paul, an associate professor at Indiana University's Media School and the author of studies on psychological effects of pornography, told The New York Times in February that "on average, boys are around 13, and girls are around 14, when they first see pornography."

The truth is, growing up is a delicate process. Parents can't protect their children from everything. However, there are a few things they can do to better prepare their children for adulthood.

Strasburger suggests setting boundaries. "You have to be very conscientious about it and basically start controlling media from the get-go. And that means reading to your baby, not putting a smartphone in her hand. … Being very conscientious between [ages] 2 and 8, in terms of content and time and co-viewing."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 hour per day of high-quality programming for children 2 to 5 years. As for children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media.

Cash recommends parents read "Reset Your Child's Brain" by Victoria Dunckley and "The Big Disconnect" by Catherine Steiner-Adair and visit the website familiesmanagingmedia.com. Cash said the first step for parents is to start understanding what children need. "We're unprepared for the technology and how to fit it into our lives appropriately," Cash said. "Parents really need to talk to a parenting coach or therapist who specializes in child development."

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