Gen Z; those born between 1997 and 2013, are called digital natives because they have grown up with the internet and smartphones. Although they have the upside of vast information readily accessible to them; it also has its downside. Smartphone addiction is a very real thing affecting the social and emotional development of children. Children as young as one are surrounded by smartphones or see adults around them on smartphones and children in their pre- teens already have their own phones and tablets. Any attempt to control the use is retaliated with temper tantrums and aggressive behaviors like hitting, throwing and breaking things etc.
A very important aspect that is lost due to gadget use; which is necessary for good emotional development is attunement. It lays the ground for development of empathy, emotional regulation and intelligence. Attunement is the caregiver mimicking babbling, mimicking child’s play, caring touch, mimicking emotions and trying to calm the child down when in distress. Play is another important area where children learn empathy, social interactions by taking turns, conversation skills and emotional regulation. Currently playing on gadgets is taking over social play; denying the child from learning important skills that can have repercussions in their future. All this will determine how the child will interact and socialize with others. This lack of social and emotional intelligence can lead to isolation and loneliness; leading to social anxiety and depression. And this might pull the individual more towards their comfort zone of gadget use further isolating the individual; even substituting online friendships for offline friendships. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made this worse; seriously further affecting their emotional well-being and social development.
The first aspect we need to realize is that, addiction especially when started earlier; can be overcome through connecting with your child than control. With regards to overcoming the negative effects on emotional development; it is very important especially during the sensitive periods of development till 10 years to take time to out to be with your child. These periods in development are where children learn from imitation; we need to modify our own habits first, before we teach to the child. Especially during infancy; spend time, engaging in their child play, bonding emotionally (hugs, kisses, attuning to their emotions). Try not to use or give smartphones at this age and especially not to soothe a child with smartphones when they are in distress. It is important to attune with their emotions first, communicate empathy (I can see that this is causing you distress) and try to soothe them; by being calm yourself. Through this they are learning emotion regulation skills from you and also understanding how they should behave during emotionally charged situations. To keep the child engaged please set up play dates or engage the child in games; but avoid giving smartphones. By doing this child is learning to self- engage, self-play, learning social skills etc. The emotional bonding with your child is an important foundation; that will help strengthen the relationship in future; helping them know that they are safe, loved (helping them build self-esteem) and can always fall back on you.
Anything a child enjoys; he will engage in it more often. If they have other activities and face to face interactions; they enjoy they will gravitate towards it. For social development; during childhood; have a set of activities that the child enjoys, take them to parks, society club houses for social interactions. If that is difficult; engage the child in creative activities (legos, clay activities), set up play dates with his classmates, set up classes for sports that the child shows interest in. Set screen times (one hour per day) and give heads up to the child when the screen time is ending so that the child can prepare themselves to ending gadget use and finding other things to do. This can reduce temper tantrums and asking for more time on the phone.
When the child has other things he/she enjoys; they will not turn to smartphones for entertainment. Please do not give children their own smartphones at a young age; anything that is not age appropriate becomes addictive. These are all avenues that teach the child important life skills; absence of which have far reaching consequences for their future and mental health.
(The above article is authored by Ms. Aaradhana Reddy, Counselling Psychologist, Hyderabad, Telangana)