How to Keep Children From Drowning in the Device Deep End

Heather Staker

Most children in the developed world meet their first computer at an early age. Mobile phones, tablets, and laptops are in their homes, their schools, and many times, their backpacks. Is this accessibility all good?

I’ve long been an advocate of blending online learning strategically into the school day. But my enthusiasm falls far short of blanket endorsement. The fact is that too many children are being thrown in the digital deep end, without the skills or supervision they need to survive.

On a recent trip to London, I noticed this headline in The Telegraph: “Are smartphones making our children mentally ill?” The article states that in the United Kingdom, emergency visits to child psychiatric hospitals doubled in the past four years and young adults hospitalized for self-harm is up 70 percent in a decade. Julie Lynn Evans, a child psychotherapist in the UK for the past 25 years, points her finger at one primary culprit: smartphones.

“Something is clearly happening,” she says, “because I am seeing the evidence in the numbers of depressive, anorexic, cutting children who come to see me. And it always has something to do with the computer, the Internet and the smartphone.” The difference between smartphones and other devices, she says, is that because of their pocket size, youngsters can access them without adult supervision—in parks, on the playground, in their rooms. The devices are portals that transport them to chatrooms, self-harming websites, anorexia websites, and real-time pornography. The result is a growing number of children experiencing unprecedented mental darkness and distress.

What can families and schools do to protect children from the digital deep end?

One possibility is to ban children from devices. But that throws out so much good along with the bad. Children by the millions are overcoming math anxiety, learning to read, learning to code, and discovering a host of other unprecedented enrichments—all thanks to the marvel of online resources. And even if it were desirable to do so, shielding children from all-things digital is impossible. The Internet is becoming so intertwined with our daily lives that it makes more sense to help children navigate this reality, rather than try to blind them to it.

Access to devices does not have to be all or nothing. Instead, adults should moderate children’s usage. Dr. Evans recommends using computers like parents used to use TV with their children: “You can watch this but you can’t watch that.” This is as true for teenagers as it is for young children. One school principal I know requires that the parents of middle and high school students sign a covenant at the beginning of the year that they will parent their children. He believes that, too often, the parents of older children underestimate how much mentoring and guidance their adolescents continue to need even as their bodies grow bigger and more adult-like.

To moderate usage, think of the Internet like a school bus taking your child on a field trip. Teachers plan field trips with care, including getting parent permission, planning the learning objectives, and scheduling the students’ safe return. Yet with devices, adults tend to skip these steps and let children wander off to any destination, with no thought of safety and completely alone. The better approach is to treat virtual experiences for children with as much planning and concern as if they were embarked on any other field trip or activity away.

Dr. Evans also recommends that parents set the example by moderating their own device use. “We know all about the importance of childhood attachment and good healthy childhood relationships with parents. Yet, if you look in the local park, you see children at a very early age not getting the tender, intense love they used to because their parents are always on their smartphones. Put them down and be with your kids.”

Both at home and at school, children need to be taught what to do when inappropriate images or cyber-bullies show up on their screens. One school rehearses its “crash and tell” plan with students to drill the habit of closing the laptops and telling a teacher when they encounter anything uncomfortable.

Heather Staker Blog-deer-park-250pxwThe same day as reading the article in The Telegraph, I had the pleasure of jogging through a deer park outside of London. At the entrance to the park was a sign that warned visitors not to touch or feed the baby deer. “Mothers know where their calves are,” it warned. I thought about that sign the entire way home. Do we as parents and teachers know where our children are, even if it’s a virtual place? It’s time for adults to do more to help children ease into their blended, connected world in a way that leads only to mental and emotional benefit, not distress.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Do you have a story to share about how you create powerful learning experiences for your children? Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter with #SmartParents. ” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Heather Staker the president and founder of Ready to Blend, as well as an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute. Follow Heather on Twitter, @hstaker.

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