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A Child Psychologist’s Road Map to a Happy Future in the Digital World

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Jim Schroeder - published on 08/19/15

What it will take

Over the past three years, I have written a lot about the issues of media and technology and our youth of today.  Much of it is available on my Just Thinking site, and I encourage you to check out the articles that I have published about various topics, some of which include much more specific recommendations regarding how to address media and technology concerns.  Through all of this, though, I realize that some people often look at recommendations such as mine from a restrictive standpoint, in much the same way we might view health advice or religious beliefs.  For this (and many other reasons), it is understandable that we would feel worn down by advice that does not naturally coalesce with how we and others might be living today.  But beyond the perception of rules and restraint, there is another vision for media and technology and our youth that is aspirational.  It is one which is founded not on limitation, but on hopes and dreams that I believe almost all of us share for our kids.  It is a desire to put their well-being first in importance, and trends and technological advances second.

My vision begins with three major principles.  From here it develops into a broader landscape of how these principles apply to day-to-day habits and routines.  These principles are as follows:

1. Media/technology encourages (not discourages) natural, healthy development throughout the lifespan, in the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains.

2. Media/technology promotes human autonomy and critical-thinking, not unnecessary dependence on devices

3. Media/technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

From these core principles, I will briefly illustrate how each applies more closely to our youth’s daily existence.  But first, it is important to address a few things that we are learning about development from neuroimaging.  The first is that by 15, most of the basic intellectual skills have been developed, thereby emphasizing how important it is to promote reasoning and critical-thinking skills prior to this age.  However, between ages 15 to 22 (in most individuals), brain centers dedicated to self-control, emotional regulation, organization, and planning skills continue to mature.  Adolescents show more neurological activation when presented with pleasurable stimuli than at any other age.  In addition, neuroimaging has found a strong “peer effect” which seems to be hard-wired. That is, if adolescents are exposed to immediately gratifying options, and peers are engaging in similar behaviors, adolescents really struggle to make different choices; therefore, neuroimaging research suggests that making entities “harder to obtain” is likely a more effective public policy than “education” alone (e.g., Just Say No).  As the editor of the Journal of Adolescent Health notes (prefacing an edition dedicated to this topic):

Adolescent self-esteem, family, and school connectedness, and belief systems have been identified as protective factors for positive adolescent emotional health.  If one conceptualizes these elements of societal guidance as the “brake” for reckless adolescent behavior before the inhibitory prefrontal cortex is fully developed, then one can understand that our forefathers were correct in providing structure and guidance for developing adolescents through close family, school, and community relationships [p. 322]     

Principle #1:Media/technology encourages (not discourages) natural, healthy development throughout the lifespan, in the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains:  We open this vision with a simple understanding.  Early social skills and physical development set the stage for the rest of a person’s life.  A child must repeatedly engage others face-to-face, and experience the world around them in constant movement. Accordingly, the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends no screens before the age of 2.

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