The other night, I informed my 9-year-old daughter that her 15 minutes of Minecraft were up. It didn’t go well. It never does. I was met with a series of animal noises: first, grunts when I told her it was time to wind it down, then a snarl, and finally, squawks of protest as I removed the gizmo from her clutching hands. What happened to my normally chatty, lively child?
There’s no doubt that technology has made our lives easier, more informative, and a lot more fun. But emerging research shows that it can also erode our kids’ social and life skills—and that includes pretty important stuff like showing courtesy and empathy, making conversation, handling conflict, and amusing yourself on your own.
Like it or not, technology is ever-present in your child’s life: A new Pew Research survey found that a full 95 percent of teens now have access to a smartphone—a staggering 22 percent increase from the 73 percent of teens who said this in Pew’s last report in 2015. Nearly half of those same teens said they use the internet “almost constantly.”
They weren’t kidding. A 2015 report from Common Sense Media found that teens spent an average of nine hours a day online, while kids aged 8 to 12 logged in six hours daily. Even children between 0 and 8 spent an average of 50 minutes a day in front of a screen.
But face-to-face time is a crucial part of a child’s socialization process, says Jennifer Hope, PhD, a psychologist in Brooklyn, New York. “When they spend too much time on screens and not enough time engaging with other people, they become accustomed to immediate gratification, endless stimulation, winning, and controlling all aspects of their environment,” she says. The result can be poor cooperation skills, distractibility, and a low tolerance for frustration or boredom that results in meltdowns.
Fortunately, parents have the power to keep their kids on the right path. Here’s how.
1. Practice chatting with strangers
If you’re at a restaurant, don’t order the meal for your child, even if he or she is very young. Have them order instead, and nudge them to say “please” and “thank you” to the server. Similarly, if you need to buy something at a store, encourage your kid to do it—starting with a “hello” to the cashier, says Patricia Rossi, an etiquette keynote speaker from Tampa Bay, Florida, and author of Everyday Etiquette.
“Meeting and greeting should start small, and be a part of everyday life,” she says. “It’s difficult for some children to look adults in the eye, so play a little game. You can tell your child, ‘When you say hello to the cashier at the grocery store today, look for the color of her eyes, and tell me the color when we get in the car.’ It’s a little hack for teaching eye contact, which is important.”
2. Don’t use technology as an “emotional pacifier”
That’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls the method of keeping kids quiet and calm by handing them a phone. Sometimes, let’s face it, that phone is a godsend—like when you’re on a crowded plane, and your preschooler has a meltdown because he wants to wear his pull-up diaper as a hat. But as the AAP maintains, this shouldn’t be the only way that kids learn to handle their emotions—by stifling them with a distraction. Instead, they should be taught to identify their feelings, and encouraged to talk about ways they can solve a problem that’s making them upset.
Reading social cues in order to learn and grow requires the participation of others. In recognition of that, Dr. Hope says that many schools are now introducing Social and Emotional Learning Programs (SEL) into their curricula to build social and emotional intelligence and encourage the development of social competence. “Face to face interaction, beginning in infancy, helps kids develop healthy relationships,” says Dr. Hope, “as opposed to interactions with screens, in which the activity is passive and requires no reciprocal communication.”
3. Teach kids to put down the phone when Grandma is telling them about her bridge game
Tell your kid that yes, you know it’s hard to stop when you’re in the middle of building an underwater house on Minecraft, but when Grandma is asking you a question, it’s not respectful to mumble your answer, eyes glued on a screen.
And put your own phone down when your child talks to you. “Putting perimeters around your own cell phone use will make it easy to request the same of them,” says Rossi. As we all know, kids are great mimics, so modeling your own behavior is critical. If I have two minutes of free time, I try to restrain myself from reaching mindlessly for the phone, even if I desperately want to see that video of a corgi in a conga line that I keep hearing about. (The iPhone’s ScreenTime app is a helpful, and also horrifying, way to track your social media use.)
4. Have analog playdates
The more interactions your child can have with others “IRL”—friends, relatives, parents, neighbors—the better their levels of empathy can be. I often think of a fascinating 2014 UCLA study that analyzed the impact digital gizmos have on people’s ability to communicate face to face.
Researchers observed 51 sixth graders who were sent to an outdoors camp. For five days, the kids were totally deprived of TVs, computers and phones (the horror!). They were then compared to another group of sixth graders who spent their usual time in front of screens.
Both sets of kids were shown photos and videos of people expressing emotions—anger, sadness, joy, anxiety. The result? The kids who had been deprived of screens were much better at reading the emotions of others. (Let it sink in for a minute that this radical uptick in empathy occurred not after five weeks of no screens, but five days.)
That’s because we are hardwired to connect. In our Brooklyn neighborhood, there is a wildly popular club that offers over 300 board games for kids to play together, as well as interactive fantasy games like Magic The Gathering—and no gizmos allowed. My daughter joined last year, and nothing has improved her social skills more quickly than playing hours of games with a group of kids. These clubs are catching on nationally—and if you ask me, it’s because even in our tech-happy age, humans still want to gather in groups.
5. Stash phones during meals
Experts say that kids crave, and expect, limits, even if it doesn’t seem like it. So set them, and put all devices away during family meals. That means no phones on the table, even if they’re powered down. Why? A 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research suggests that the presence of a phone on the table, even if it isn’t in use, is a distraction that actually reduces a person’s cognitive capacity and ability to remember things.
6. Keep some outings tech-free
Every trip to the park or the bouncy castle doesn’t need to be documented. Stopping kids to pose for pictures takes them—and you—out of the moment. Instead, put the phone away and enjoy chasing them around the park.
7. Boredom doesn’t have to be scary
Research shows that boredom is actually useful for kids. It helps them work through uncomfortable moments, explore their surroundings, get motivated, and be more creative. “It also has benefits in kids’ ability to focus and self-regulate,” says Dr. Hope. “No child should be entertained constantly.”
She’s right. One recent rainy afternoon when I refused to give my daughter her tablet, she complained for a while, but then drifted into her bedroom. She emerged a little later and announced that she had turned into our building’s superintendent, Doug. She had constructed a tool-kit out of an old shoebox, and a ring of “keys” out of paper clips.
The afternoon whizzed by as “Doug” industriously did odd jobs around our apartment. Although I’ll be honest: When our new super started reprimanding me because I wasn’t separating my recyclables properly, I was really tempted to hand her my phone.
- Get more off-line communication advice from Jancee in her articles How to Really Listen—and Be Heard and Want to Improve Your Sex Life? Grab a Sponge.
- Check out our parenting section on The Well.
- Is the digital age turning into one big distraction? Learn some surprising ways to block out interruptions and get things done.