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3 Ways to Know When Tech Is Getting in the Way, and How Play Can Help

2020-12-10 by Dr. Jenny
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3 Ways to Know When Tech Is Getting in the Way, and How Play Can Help

As adults, we have pretty close relationships with our phones and technology. Ever had the panic when your internet service goes out, or you forget your phone somewhere? For those of us who grew up in a time when caller ID and answering machines were new inventions, this realization of our dependence on technology can feel a little weird. It’s helpful to take a step back and reflect upon the habit-driven ways we use technology without even thinking about it, how it helps us, but also what it’s getting in the way of.

In this blog post, I’m going to pose a few questions to help parents reflect on their emotional relationship with technology, wonder whether their children might be using media as an emotional calming tool too much, and — of course — how play can help!

Parents and kids on tech

How to Strike a Healthy Tech-Life Balance

  1. Are you a compulsive checker? Someone who always wants the latest news and social media updates? Is it hard to detach from your phone? We all are doing this a lot due to current events, and it can quickly become a habit (smartphones and social media are designed to be habit-forming on purpose!). But, research suggests that having our attention frequently split by smartphone use can make it harder to concentrate or respond to our kids. It’s helpful to reflect upon when all the checking is actually making parenting harder, and not making us any happier. (By the way, we’re also role modeling not being able to put the phone down to our kids!)

    How play can help: If you’re someone who likes a lot of stimulation, try games that are fast-moving and keep you mentally engaged, such as card games or board games. When playing with your kids, try to set the “do not disturb” function on your phone, or leave your phone at home while you go for a walk. Try this for a week and see how it feels to single-task — it might be a relief!

  2. When your family is stressing you out, do you escape into your phone? Or put on a TV show for your kids? You’re not alone — lots of parents say they do this. Being a parent is really hard — we all need a break to have a laugh with friends or read something escapist! However, media is engineered to be tailored to our interests and provide “frictionless” pleasure (so you stay on longer and see more ads), so be aware of this when you find yourself spending longer than you planned. For kids, use of media to calm them down a lot is linked to social-emotional delays, so try to have other tools in your toolbox for helping them get back to the “green (calm/focused) zone.”

    How play can help: First of all, play can help by reducing some of the negative behaviors that stress us out. When we commit to some focused “quality time” with kids every day, following their lead, this can reduce some of their demands for your attention at other times of day. During play, you also get a peek inside your child’s imagination and ideas, and feeling understood helps kids regulate their emotions. Try breaking out the crayons and then guessing what thoughts or feelings are coming through in their drawings. Bring out the dress-up clothes and see whether they want to be the brave dragon-slayer or caring veterinarian!

  3. What types of tech really rile your kids up? Is it TV programs with lots of battles or fights, unboxing videos that infect them with gimme-gimmes, or sassy cartoons? Figure out which tech triggers disorganized emotions in your kids, and avoid those.

    How play can help: If your child struggles to transition away from their favorite TV show or app, try to find a hands-on version of their favorite characters, or a book related to the topic of the show (e.g., space, nature). Kids have an easier time transitioning when we can carry something forward from one activity to the next.

No one does this perfectly, but the crucial ingredient is being reflective, not just having automatic habits when it comes to grabbing technology when we’re stressed out. The more awake we are to our reactions to technology, the more intentional we can be about using it, especially during such an emotionally challenging time.

In Case You Missed It
This blog post is part of our “Families and Tech During COVID-19 series in the Stuck Inside Guide. The goal is to help parents think about and choose healthier digital media and play experiences for their kids, and avoid the tech that’s not worth your child’s time.

Part 1: Introducing a New Series on Families and Tech During COVID-19

Part 2: 4 Lessons Remote Learning Taught Us (And How Play Can Help)

Part 3: 3 Differences Between Open-Ended Play And Interactive Apps

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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