Put Down That Blackberry!: Daniel Sieberg’s Advice on a Digital Diet for the Whole Family

Last week, the New York Times reported on a new announcement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, warning parents of infants and toddlers about the dangers of overexposing young children to media and technology.  The news got me thinking about how technology affects all of us—adults and children alike—so I turned to journalist and tech expert Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life, for his perspective:

Do you agree with this report that “screen time” (whether TV, computers, or video games) has no educational benefits for children? Or can a laptop, ipad or television ever have a positive impact on kids and families?

Eventually, perhaps during elementary grades, “screen time” can have educational benefits and is often part of a school’s curriculum. My first computer was an Apple II+ in grade 4 and I will always remember how it increased my desire to learn. Laptops or tablets can offer innovative and fun ways to learn that keep children engaged. There are also documented cases of autistic children who can’t speak being able to communicate in new ways via iPads that open an entire world of emotions and discovery. But in my experience, too many parents use “screen time” as the de facto babysitter and don’t consider the consequences of that exposure. Like devouring a chocolate bar, children will consume whatever is in front of them but that doesn’t mean it’s beneficial. There’s no question that blocking children from seeing various screens is trickier than ever in today’s society—we carry them with us, they’re usually in every room, and parents need them for work or staying in touch. And it can be a tradeoff: my parents live in Canada and we use Skype for them to see our daughter but I try to keep it limited and only for that purpose. It’s about building awareness and thinking about those occasions to assess their impact. That’s where I hope the book comes in– as a way to consider these issues and take control.

The article suggested that parents’ own technology use takes away from playtime with their children.  What should moms and dads be doing to carve out more quality time with their youngsters, without the constant pinging of their Blackberry or iPhone?

This is a tough question to answer since no loving parent in the world imagines they’re neglecting their children or avoiding quality time. But the demands of work life extends beyond 9-5 and some parents work from home where the distractions are everywhere. I think children can be great indicators of when the balance is lost– that stare from your son or daughter while you’re tapping away on a smart phone likely means he/she feels like something has come between them. They can see the device and recognize that mom or dad isn’t giving them their full attention anymore. Sometimes it’s necessary to answer an email or text but again it’s about being aware of when children are noticing these things. Try limiting the communication to nap time or when an older child is busy reading. Keep the devices out of your reach so you aren’t as tempted. And remember that most electronic correspondence is not an emergency and can wait.

As you talk about in your book, in today’s tech-addicted world it’s so important to be mindful of our devices’ role in our lives. What are the most important things to keep in mind in order to maintain a healthy, balanced relationship with technology?

At the risk of sound facetious, a few things: 1) there’s still an ON/OFF switch, 2) YOU are in control, and 3) technology is a wonderful thing when used properly. There’s no point in hating technology or wishing it didn’t exist–we’re moving in exciting directions with new advancements all the time. I, for one, am constantly intrigued by how technology can enhance our lives and relationships. But knowing that technology can get the best of us (sometimes in subtle ways) means picking up on signals that could take us in the wrong direction. Analyzing your own tech dependence can be an eye-opening way of getting a “dashboard view” of where you’re headed. In the book I talk about structuring your “e-day” so when you log on or log off of the digital world or reviewing how you stay in touch with certain people. And it’s about establishing rigid barriers when necessary so the people around you aren’t sacrificed along the way. Be empowered through the power of technology–without losing your humanity along the way. Of course it sounds easier in theory than it is in reality, but the benefits of maintaining your personal identity and strengthening those ties with loved ones will pay dividends for life.

How do you control the role of technology in your family life? Do you have any tips or tricks for hitting the off switch?

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