The advent of the internet and smart devices in daily life has advanced so quickly that our parenting culture has not had a chance to anticipate how naturally children adapt to and master every innovation. Studies are underway to measure and record the impact on youth. A recent 60 Minutes feature addressed the impact of screen time on young brains based upon a National Institutes of Health study involving 4,500 participants. The long term goal of the study is to evaluate how screen time impacts the physical structure of the brain.

According to this report, the initial findings based upon brain scans of children using smartphones, devices, tablets or video games more than seven hours a day, suggest there is a thinning of the cortex, the wrinkly outer layer of the brain that processes the five senses. The researcher indicates this is something that normally happens through maturation; it is happening earlier with use of devices.

Other findings reveal how software developers use brain science to design apps that engage users of the device like a drug – tapping the reward centers of the brain that offer short term feel good doses of dopamine to mimic a sense of connection and wellness, which keeps the user coming back for more. Prolonged and unchecked use can potentially rewire the brain to seek the short term feel good hits at the expense of real life relationships and other daily life activities. (See related: How the brains of tech-savvy youth are being hacked).

For many parents this may feel like a “no win” situation, as smart devices have become a natural part of daily life. And yet setting limits is critical, especially for young ones who need to have more human face-to-face interactions in order to form secure connections associated with the neuropathways of the brain that secrete oxytocin, the genuine love hormone associated with human bonding.

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How to say “no” and when to say “yes” to the device

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In order to help parents prepare youth to be healthy and responsible users of devices Cyber Rites of Passage (defining thresholds of maturity) offers age-appropriate boundary setting criteria as a guide (source Fresh Start: Family  Culture Builder for Household Executives). The aim of these rites of passage offer parents a strategy to help their children understand the criteria for using devices with increased permissions and independence as they demonstrate trust to honor house rules. In this way, parents can help children vision how and when they will have access to their online privileges, much like preparing to earn a driver’s license. (Important: these thresholds of maturity for use of devices and apps provide a path for autonomy in the context of house rules.)

  • Tiny-Tot or the “nonuser” (2 years and under). Limited use of screen time closely monitored. Keep it simple and keep in mind that mostly the interface infants and toddlers require is human. (Note the American Association of Pediatrics recommends no screen time except for video facetiming.)
  • Early Ranger (3-5 years old). The device should be used with strict supervision; the child should not be left alone with the device and passwords are not granted.
  • Ranger (6-10 years old). Issued devices much like checking out a library book. They are issued the device (tablet, smartphone, or video game) for a designated timeframe and then returned. There is general oversight.
  • Junior Explorer (11-15 years old). At this point, your child has demonstrated that she understands the importance of setting boundaries regarding who has access to his personal information (phone number, address, where attends school, etc.) and knowing the source of the apps being used. Has consistently followed the guidelines and house rules. Texting is permitted with monitoring; introduce social media with regular monitoring. Parents have all passwords.
  • Explorer (16 years and older). Should be competent and trustworthy on social media. At this point, your child appreciates that there is no privacy, that you will be conducting random checks on texts and posts to social media. Parents have access to all passwords.

(For more details about these Cyber Rites of Passage, see Appendix D of the Fresh Start Manual).

For parents with tweens and teens using devices, check out:

Who is more influential? Social media or parents?

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About:  We are a non-profit education center founded in Roseville, CA to strengthen the parent-child bond in a hyper-connected world. Our mission is to restore families with the mustard seed of faith that declares liberty already belongs to the soul because one God, the Creator of all humanity, grants every human being intelligence and free will to choose what to believe, and that is power that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered to the bully, the drug or the device. To that end, ten percent of all proceeds are donated to prison ministries. Your donations are greatly appreciated. (Donations are payable to Banana Moments Foundation).

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Joanna Jullien, Founder & CEO of Core Connectivity
Photo by: Victoria Hatch

Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and consultant on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber-powered world. She is a former technology executive trained in behavioral science at U.C. Berkeley, a mother of two grown sons, and an author of books for practical guidance on parenting, growing up and family life in the network culture. As a family and technology culture advisor, Joanna has appeared on 103.9FM The Fish, 710AM Keeping Faith in America, 1380AM The Answer, and Examiner.com.