Technology Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem for Kids

eje gustafsson/FlickrSource: eje gustafsson/Flickr

Technology Has Benefits

When wisely chosen and used well, technology has many benefits for children and adolescents. Videogames and interactive online activities can provide learning opportunities that expand a child’s world. A few minutes of television can be a happy way for a child to relax at the end of a challenging day, especially when shared with a loving parent, or when parents need a break. There are some wonderful programs available that inspire and educate and delight children and adults. And technological adaptations can be life-changing for a child with special learning needs, whether giftedness or learning problems.

When Is Technology Use a Problem?

When a child or adult is paying attention to an electronic device—and technology and social media are designed to attract and hold people’s attention—they are not paying full attention to the people they are with. The momentary possibilities and opportunities to experience the magic of true connection are lost.

When technology gets out of balance in a person’s life, it usually means that responsibilities, obligations, and connections go by the wayside. When it goes too far, people stop paying attention to their health and well-being, and the social relationships, friends, and activities they used to enjoy.

Make your own family media use plan. Media should work for you and within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.

Technology can distract our attention from what matters most in our lives, leaving nothing in its place other than some wasted moments online.

Problems with technology are complex and multi-dimensional. Very often, as with everything else in children’s development, the problem starts with one or both of the parents.

Parents on Devices Can Cause Problems for Kids

Children are closely attuned to their parents’ attention. Infants and young children depend on that attention for their survival, of course, but also for their social and emotional development. Kids of all ages thrive when they receive consistent, dependable, focused, loving attention. Conversely, kids whose parents spend significant time on devices are more negative and less resilient.

Several research studies in the last several years have demonstrated how serious a problem this is becoming. In one study, infants and toddlers expressed more distress, and were less likely to explore their environment, when their mothers were using their cell phones. The young children whose mothers reported greater habitual use of mobile devices outside the lab showed more negativity, and less emotional recovery, when their mothers did turn off their phones. The researchers concluded, “ Like other forms of maternal withdrawal and unresponsiveness, mobile-device use can have a negative impact on infant social-emotional functioning and parent-child interactions .”

Distracted parents—those who keep their devices close and are frequently checking them or responding to phone calls and messages—tend to be less predictable, less reliable, and less attentive. Fragmented and chaotic maternal care disrupts babies’ and young children’s brain development, which can lead to emotional disorders later in life: “We need predictability and consistency for the emotional system to develop.

Show your child how to become a responsible citizen. Find ways to help others all year. Kids gain a sense of self-worth by volunteering in the community.

Using a smartphone or other device when you’re with a child is a form of psychological withdrawal and non-responsiveness. That doesn’t mean you have to stay off your phone 100% of the time, but it does mean that good parenting involves being with your child as much as possible when you are with them. It means putting away your phone and other electronic devices until you can take a break that doesn’t leave your child feeling bumped for something you find more interesting. Be fully present in the brief moment you have to help your child grow into the delightful adult you hope they will become, and you increase the chances of the outcome you hope for.

Problems for Kids on Devices

When kids spend too much time on devices, they are not spending enough time on healthier activities, including social interactions, family time, physical activity, playtime, outdoor time, and sleep. Not surprisingly then (if technology-focused kids aren’t leading healthy, balanced lives), increased technology use leads to increased stress and anxiety in kids .

The feeling of anonymity in interactive online activity (games, social media) can lead to rude and disrespectful behaviour, including cruelty and negativity that can spill over into real life. In its extreme, this results in cyberbullying, which can have serious, even fatal, real-world effects.

Savor the moments. Yes, parenthood is the most exhausting job on the planet. Yes, your house is a mess, the laundry's piled up, and the dog needs to be walked. But your kid just laughed. Enjoy it now - it will be over far too fast.

Some children (and adults) find the technology-mediated world more interesting or less painful than the real world. They risk addiction, with all the attendant damage that addiction brings.

Warning Signs of Problems

It’s time to think about moderating your child’s or your own time on technology, or seeking professional help, if your child is

  • losing interest in other activities
  • declining academically
  • choosing videogames over time with friends and family, and activities they previously enjoyed
  • showing negative moods, language, attitudes, or behavior
  • not getting enough sleep


  1. Be mindful about your own use of technology . When you’re with your family, focus on them, and not on your screens.
  2. Ensure balance in your child’s life , including family activities, outdoor play time with other kids, community-building social time, reading, writing, engagement in the arts, and sleep
  3. Respect your child’s time and attention. Help your child or adolescent become selective about their techno-activities. Some activities are useful and beneficial, in moderation; others waste time or worse. Online games are more likely to result in problems than other activities, so monitor that carefully.
  4. Restrict online access. With children under twelve, don’t allow unsupervised time online. Disable location settings. Teach kids to behave responsibly and kindly online, just like in the real world. Technology is best used in family rooms in the house--the kitchen, living room, places where others are present--but for sure, take technology out of the child or adolescent’s bedroom, at least for a few hours before bedtime and through the night.
  5. Be flexible . Each adult, each child, and each teenager is unique, with individual needs and preferences, and these evolve over time. Sometimes it’s good to bend or change the family’s techno-rules in response to changing demands and situations.

For More on Kids and Technology

“Turn Off That Smartphone, Mom and Dad!” by Dona Matthews

Why Are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety? ” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

“Why Are Teens So Stressed and What Can Break the Cycle?” by Daniel Keating

Digital disruption? Maternal mobile device use is related to infant social-emotional functioning ,” by Sarah Myruski, Olga Gulyayeva, Samantha Birk, Koraly Pérez-Edgar, Kristin A. Buss, & Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary

" Put the cellphone away! Fragmented baby care can affect brain development ," by UCI

Kids Competing with Mobile Phones for Parents’ Attention ,” by AVG Technologies

The Big Disconnect , by Catherine Steiner-Adair

“Preventing and Calming Kids’ Technology-Fueled Anxiety: How parents can be mindful about technology and help kids use it wisely,” by Dona Matthews

Encourage your child to be careful when disclosing personal information. A simple rule for younger children should be that the child should not give out their name, phone number or photo without your approval. Older children using social networking sites like Facebook should be encouraged to be selective about what personal information and photos they post to online spaces. Regardless of privacy settings, once material is online you can no longer control who sees it or how it is used.

Youth Suicide Rates Are Rising. School and The Internet May Be to Blame ,” by Lara Korte

Trying to Get the Kids to Put Down Those Phones? Here’s Help ,” by Katherine Hobson

“Is the Web a Vast Sociological Experiment? Raffi Urges Internet Reform to Keep Kids Safe,” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

“Fortnite: Violent, Compelling, and (Sometimes) Manageable,” by Dona Matthews

“How to Support Kids' Coping, Resilience, and Mental Health,” by Dona Matthews