Parenting is hard. Being a child is just as difficult. And in today’s 24/7 digital world, both roles have become even trickier and more rife with conflict and confusion. It seems like every day there’s a new article about the impact of social media and other digital tools on the young developing mind — and most of it stresses the negative effects.
At a recent lecture hosted at The Fessenden School, renowned child psychologist Dr. Anthony Rao discussed the parallels between the Digital Age and the transformative changes brought on by Industrial Age. With that backdrop, he addressed the most common concerns of parents and shared a host of insights about Raising Boys in the Digital Age.
For parents, the concern usually stems from the fact that life today is decidedly different from when they were children. In reality, life today is quite different from just 10 years ago when the Apple iPhone was introduced and Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and many other social media tools flooded our world. The combination of a “pocket computer” and a seemingly limitless array of mobile apps has turned every spare moment into an opportunity to text with friends, play games, watch funny cat videos, or answer trivia questions with a Google search. Our children spend an ever-increasing percentage of the day staring at screens — whether smartphones, tablets, or laptops — and parents wonder when enough is enough.
For children the concerns often relate to social norms. For example, “Johnny has an iPhone, so why can’t I?” or “Everybody uses SnapChat except for me.” Ostracism is every child’s greatest fear, and social media is the de facto playground of the 21st century. Unilaterally excluding a child from the digital arena can cause more problems than it remedies — and also ignores the fact that learning, play, and socialization often overlap in the digital world.
Dr. Rao highlighted the demands that the digital age places on boys. For example, social media tends to focus on virtual experiences and less on real-life learning, which runs counter to boys’ preference for visual-spatial learning. Digital activities involve less physical movement and are often conducted indoors — forcing boys to find other opportunities and outlets for their natural desire to move and expend physical energy. Finally, an offshoot of the digital age has been a school environment of accelerated achievement which, in many co-ed schools, ignores the fact that boys’ language and social-emotional skills develop later than girls’.
Dr. Rao also discussed how digital media affects the mind and body. The three most common effects are:
- neuro-overstimulation which can result in insomnia and reduced attention/learning abilities
- physiological changes due to poor posture when using mobile devices along with vision issues related to prolonged staring at backlit screens
- hyper-arousal of emotions and social referencing which can lead to depression, anxiety, social aggression, and isolation
As Dr. Rao stresses in his writings and patient consultations, boys are different than girls from infancy. As such, he urged parents to not overreact when boys are simply being boys. For example, he reminded us that fidgeting is not a symptom but rather a natural characteristic of young males throughout history and around the world.
Like every aspect of parenting, Dr. Rao explained that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to successfully integrating social media into a child’s life. This is especially true in light of the four archetypes of boy thinking styles:
- The Hunter: movement-oriented and spatial thinking
- The Maker: reflective and deep thinking
- The Scout: observer and detailed thinker
- The Emoter/Performer: socially connected thinking
Recognizing these styles in your own children can provide a specific roadmap for regulating screen usage.
Dr. Rao also shared some tips for parenting effectively in the digital age that apply regardless of your child’s thinking style.
- Model healthy screen behavior. Your children are watching and learning from you.
- Don’t multi-task. Focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it well.
- Get your family moving. We all benefit from physical activity, particularly in the outdoors.
- Screen are powerful rewards – allow only after homework and chores are done.
- Don’t let the anxiety of the digital age compromise your parenting. Trust your intuition and use your common sense.
The ultimate goal for parents is to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help your children achieve personal and academic success.
To learn more about what works for boys in the classroom and at home, explore some other Fessy-Den Blog posts below or visit Dr. Rao’s site.