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September 24, 2015

Psychologist offers insight on parenting in a tech-filled world

Melissa Anderson says staying connected with children is essential

WMOF 2015 Internet
092415_WMOF-Net_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Dr. Melissa Anderson spoke Thursday, September 24, 2015 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on “Navigating the Net: The Benefits and Obstacles of Being an Online Family."

The average American child has access to four Internet-enabled devices. About two-thirds of American children between the ages of 8 and 18 own a cell phone. About one-third own a laptop.

The average child between the ages of 8 and 10 spends about eight hours a day consuming a variety of media. For teenagers, that figure jumps to 11 hours.

That's the reality of technology in America, according to Melissa Anderson, a psychologist at the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, Delaware County.

"It is everywhere," Anderson said. "What are we to do?"

More than 150 pilgrims at the World Meeting of Families, many of them parents or grandparents, attended Anderson's seminar discussion Thursday afternoon at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Anderson, who owns two decades of experience in her field, did not offer a panacea to parents wishing to know how to best monitor their children's use of technology. Instead, she spoke from a neurological development standpoint, explaining how brain development impacts children while providing some general guidelines along the way.

"The key is to stay in the conversation," Anderson said. "The more you can stay connected to the kids — and I use that broadly — in your life, the more you can learn about technology, the more you will be able to shape the discourse in what your children do."

Anderson encouraged parents to understand the varying brain developmental stages, to develop trusted relationships with their children and to continue to learn new technologies.

"As scary as the Internet is — the Internet is now the coffeehouse or salon of our generation," Anderson said. "For ideas to come about, they need to meet other ideas. That used to happen in salons and coffeehouses. It's now happening on the Internet."

Protecting children from the varied dangers posed by the Internet is challenging, Anderson admitted. But understanding where a child is at developmentally can make a difference.

"For me, it's a quandary these days," said Brad Gray, of Fargo, North Dakota and a father of six children. "What is a good and healthy level to technology?"

As a child, Gray said he spent much of his time playing video games. His eight-year-old son is entering that stage now.

"For me, as a kid that was an addicting thing," Gray said. "Having seen the harm in my own personality, there's a tendency of going to the other extreme. How, as a parent, do I approach this from a healthy standpoint?"

In regard to screen time, Anderson said each family needs to find its own comfort level. But she offered developmental clues.

Because babies cannot attend to sustained visual cues, they cannot learn from a screen, Anderson said. However, toddlers are very different. With the help of a familiar character, like Elmo, toddlers can learn basic tasks.

But because the right and left sides of the brain are not yet connected in toddlers, Anderson said they tend to rely on the right side of their brain, which processes emotions. Therefore, certain images can frighten them.

"What can we do as parents if our toddlers are exposed to TV?" Anderson said. "The first thing we can do is do it with them. Watch with them. Mediate the experience and talk with them about it."

By the time a child reaches elementary school, Anderson said they are capable of recognizing that the images on screens are not necessarily real. But they lack a real-world knowledge that enables them to recognize the deceptions of advertising, Photoshopping and film editing. Such topics need explaining.

Middle school students can differentiate between probable and possible, Anderson said, but they struggle with metacognitive decisions such as understanding why they need to complete their homework before watching television.

Anderson suggested implementing clear starting and endpoints with middle school children, using technology as DVRs or Netflix when watching TV.

"Sometimes, middle school kids have cell phones," Anderson added. "Even though you can text your kids, don't (always) text your kids. It's best for you to use it as a necessary means for communications, as a way of modeling that you don't need to text all the time."

Teenagers lack complete development in their frontal lobes, which influence long-term planning, emotional regulation, impulse control, empathy and insight, Anderson said.

"Sometimes when you see teenagers acting in a crazy way, you can say they can't help it — it's their brains," Anderson said, half-jokingly.

The teenage brain is prone to excitement, but also can learn quicker and faster than adults, Anderson said. It is also vulnerable to develop addictions.

Anderson encouraged parents to stay in conversation with their teenagers, but also to allow them to fail. That, Anderson said, is where they learn.

Joe Stevens, of White House Station, New Jersey, said maintaining communication with children is essential to understanding what they're doing.

"With 16 grandchildren, they're always at the house," Stevens said. "You have to set limits for them. Trying to keep up with the technology is so difficult."