by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

One recent morning, I had to take a pause to reflect on the amazing power of technology. The day before, my refrigerator stopped working. I shopped around online and found a new one that fit the dimensions of my kitchen and was within our budget. I ordered it at midnight to arrive within five days.

The following morning, I met for a chat session for the online course I teach with the DiploFoundation, discussing education and diplomacy with students from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East. As they shared the important work they were doing for education with students in many different contexts, I marveled at how technology has been able to do things we did not dream it could do just fifteen or twenty years ago.

Technology has become a tool that has made our lives easier in many ways and has allowed us to connect with each other across borders and oceans for the achievement of many common goals.

Considering how I’ve experienced how much technology can work for good, and considering that I’m  connecting with my readers now through technology and the internet with this blog post, the following resolutions may seem extreme:

  • I will not allow my children to own smart phones until they are 18, and after that, they will purchase them with their own money.
  • I will only allow them on social media after the age of 14 and with my husband and my consistent monitoring, and with their passwords fully known until the age of 18.

We are well aware now of how the internet, and particularly social media, is altering our brains. We don’t know the long term effects of these things on developing brains, and I don’t want to be in the position of experimenting on my children.

I cannot recommend the Real Simple magazine article, “Parenting Against the Internet,” highly enough for exposing some of the real risks of children’s access to the internet and social media. One story that hit me hard was that of Evan, a “popular, adventuresome” 12 year old boy who had purposefully broken his iPod touch to try to stop his pornography addiction. His mother, Nadine, not knowing he had broken it on purpose, and because he was doing well in school and showing responsibility, got him an iPhone a few months later.

Always Eagle Scout polite, he hugged his parents and disappeared to his room—not to set up his new device, as Nadine thought, but to cry. “I was so oblivious,” Nadine told me recently, through tears. She had no idea that Ethan had broken his iPod on purpose, trying to kick a spiraling pornography habit that now, with the Internet once again in his pocket, he would be unable to resist. “He was begging me to help him manage his technology,” says Nadine. “It was just much too powerful for him.”

The family, in fact, did not discover this addiction until Ethan confessed it to his father at age 17. By this time the addiction was so powerful it had led to sexting with other girls and real-life “hookups,” and his parents took the drastic measure of taking him to wilderness therapy.

The article continues, describing more children, including Trish, who was also addicted to porn, Jill, who got involved on online self-harm groups, and Adam, who was addicted to online gaming. All of these children got help, but that help came after much damage had already been done.

To make matters worse, the recent sobering news from the Center for Disease Control, covered by the New York Times, reports that young adolescents are more likely to die from suicide than from traffic accidents. The Times report implicates social media as one of the possible sources of increased stress for middle school aged children. According to the article: “The pervasiveness of social networking means that entire schools can witness someone’s shame, instead of a gaggle of girls on a school bus. And with continual access to such networks, those pressures do not end when a child comes home in the afternoon.”

There are certainly other factors and other pressures on adolescents that can lead to suicide, but if I can alleviate one aspect–the ease and ubiquitous access to social media—it might help. When my children’s bodies and minds are developing rapidly, I want them to be able to develop real, authentic relationships, not relationships mitigated by a screen. Those authentic relationships are the ones they can lean on, not the ones that are only accessed on the screens of their smart phones.

So what is there left to do? Often, adolescents and teenagers need phones to communicate with their parents when they are outside of home. Thankfully, with all of this new technology, there are options. One of the simplest options is to use an old fashioned basic cell phone, without all the bells, whistles, and hazards that come with a smart phone. There are even cell phones made for children that can limit the number of phone numbers a child can call and receive calls from.

There are other ways children can access the internet and social media. Many homes now have at least one type of tablet that children use for playing with apps, watching videos, and reading ebooks. Every tablet is different, but all should have some way of ensuring that appropriate blocks are up. The website Cool Mom Tech is a great resource for explaining different types of software and apps available to keep kids safe, such as this article on how to make an iPod safe for kids, or this one on safe kids’ web browsers for tablets.

I currently use a Kindle Fire Kids Edition, which, through the Amazon FreeTime app, gives me control not only of what they see and browse, but how much time they can do so and at what time of day they can do so. On the web browser, I am able to add the websites I want them to access and block the ones I don’t. Even with those controls, I ask my children to use the tablet in the same room as me whenever I can, and I do not allow them to use earpieces. This way I can indirectly monitor what they are watching, playing, or reading. I have a full review of this tablet here.

Regardless of what type of phone or tablet they have, one thing is clear – children cannot go to sleep with their devices. In addition to preventing inappropriate use of the devices while parents are asleep, we still don’t know what cell phone radiation might be doing to developing minds and bodies, so doctors recommend that children do not sleep with cell phones under their pillows.

I have pointed out the things I will not do to protect my children from the hazards of the internet and social media. Here are the things I WILL do instead:

  • I will seek opportunities for family bonding with my children. This includes family mealtimes, family prayer time, walks together, bedtime talks, and other chances to bond.
  • I will present my children with opportunities to develop authentic relationships through my church and my community. This includes youth meetings, retreats, events, charitable work and community service.
  • I will give my children opportunities to enjoy nature by playing outside when they can and taking them to parks and other outdoor destinations.
  • I will work on building my children’s resilience by connecting them to their family narrative. Connecting with their relatives abroad via Skype or Viber is one way of doing so.
  • I will allow my children to be bored so they can explore other interests outside of their computer screens. I will keep my home stocked with books, art supplies, musical instruments, and toys that engage their minds.
  • I will take my children on outings to museums, aquariums, and the theater to get them engaged in culture and the arts.
  • I will allow my children limited use of the internet and social media in a guided manner.
  • I will teach my children that nothing is “private” on the internet. As this election season has proven, even deleted emails can put your lifelong ambitions at risk.
  • I will model appropriate smart phone and internet use by putting down my phone, tablet, or computer when I am at meals with them or engaging with them in other ways. When I do use screens extensively (such as my laptop for work), I will explain to my children why I am using them. When my kids take a peek at my screen and see me reading an article or ebook more often than checking my Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter updates, I will have modeled for them positive uses of technology.

The internet and social media pose dangers to us and our children when we become enslaved by them.  Advances in technology are advances when we take control of our family lives and make our technology work for us.

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(c) Phoebe Farag 2016