My seven-year-old daughter is very quiet and does not have many friends. She is spending more time on Facebook and playing online games. Recently, we went to the birthday party of a friend’s child and she sat in the corner and played on her iPad. Later, she said she didn’t feel comfortable playing with children she didn’t know. Should we take away her laptop and iPad? We are worried that she is becoming an internet addict.
I have not met your daughter and can’t comment on if she might be in danger of becoming an internet “addict”. But as parents, it is easy for us to give in to the temptation of letting our kids be entertained by electronic babysitters (gadgets, online games) while we are out, or simply having a quiet moment by ourselves.
It is an art to strike a balance between making good use of what technology offers and building a close relationship through shared experiences.
Before the internet, children and adults had more “real-time reality” and “off time”. We were not constantly in touch virtually with friends and families. We had more down time to reflect on what was going on and develop the ability to live in the quiet moment, without constant stimulation.
One of the dangers for children who are constantly online is that “real-time reality” can be frustratingly slow. They have to wait, take turns, ask politely to get what they want and negotiate with others.
How can children develop social skills and learn to resolve conflicts when they are not given the opportunity to have those experiences when they are young and the consequences are relatively little? And how about the value of idle time, the capacity to be on one’s own?
Brain development is experience-based. To learn about the world around us and to communicate with others, we need real-life experience to connect the neurons, to make it part of our brain’s structure. The electronic babysitter cannot help us with this.
Noted brain researcher Dr Marian Cleeves Diamond pointed out at a US conference that “it is important to interact with the objects, to explore, to investigate, both physically and mentally”. Neurons develop by repeat firing, and this connection can only happen through doing it, feeling it and making use of our senses.
Research has shown that what is not being used will be eliminated through pruning. We all want to provide the best for our children and we now know the importance of emotional intelligence, but can children develop social skills that they need for the rest of their life, and learn to negotiate the ups and downs in life?
Can they learn about the give and take in all relationships from their experiences in virtual relationships? What happens to children who grow up with little or no understanding of social rules? What happens if they don’t understand body language or the importance of manners?
It is not realistic to think we can shield our children from the electronic villages they are born into, but if we ensure that technology is not the centre of our children’s lives, but something that enhances our shared experience, we can help our children develop control over the use of the technology.
Some online educational games can help shy children initiate contact with other children in school, to build common interests, and help them break the ice. Used selectively, technology can facilitate social thinking, the cognitive ability to process and respond to social cues in your child’s environment.
Your daughter is at the age where she is developing relationships outside her immediate family to meet her social needs. The internet, if used appropriately, can be a bridge to start friendships, particularly for children who are on the move because of their parents’ work.
Our children deserve the opportunity to be children and not the mini-adults that many marketers want to turn them into. Games and the internet can be icebreakers, giving shy children confidence in a topic that they are comfortable with. As parents you can help your daughter use her interest as the focal point to overcome her anxiety, to develop talking and listening skills, to teach her how to begin and sustain a conversation.
Once she steps out of her shyness, your job is then to monitor and to support her to become more aware of social cues, and to help her respond to social expectations.
A book to consider is The Media Diet for Kids by Teresa Orange and Louise O’Flynn, which shows how to limit children’s use of technology and monitor what they are doing.
Another is Social Rules for Kids by Susan Diamond, which is useful for children struggling with social skills and shyness.
Let your daughter know that you are there to help when you can. Try to set an example by giving her quality time when you turn off all technologies and get back to basics.
You will be surprised how a game of snap or a board game can open conversation and deepen your relationship.
But if you find that she is having difficulties breaking away from her internet usage, it could be well worth looking into a short course of “Exposure & Response Prevention” behavioural therapy.
Lora Lee is a child therapist and parenting counsellor with a background in developmental psychology, play therapy, and post-separation counselling