Balancing Your Child's Use of Technology


Your child's attention when watching TV is not the same as her attention in class or at the dinner table. The images and movement on a TV screen draw her in. Her attention to the screen is largely involuntary, activating brain pathways (called "bottom-up") that originate in her sensory cortex.

In contrast, her attention in class or at the dinner table requires effort. Called voluntary, this type of attention builds brain pathways (called "top-down") that originate in her prefrontal cortex. These brain pathways are crucial to the development of her ability to control her own attention.

children will spend thousands of hours in front of a screen as they grow up. Will this make them technologically proficient?

A child today needs to be technologically proficient. She'll spend thousands of hours in front of screens as her brain grows. It's essential for you, as a parent in the 21st century, to keep an ongoing awareness of what kind of attention your child is exercising and which brain pathways she's strengthening. Only voluntary attention equips her brain for future success.

Research has shown that children who are able to resist a "hot" stimulus -- an attention grabber -- fare better across the board later in life -- better SAT scores, higher grades in school, healthier BMIs (Body Mass Indices). Technology opens new worlds of learning opportunities for your child. Educational apps are brilliant in their design and ability to hold a child's interest. At the same time, your child needs to learn how to use the "off" switch. This builds her "cognitive control," the ability to turn her attention away from an immediate temptation and onto a less enticing activity that provides long-term rewards. Her success in life depends on it.

your child's growing brain

During childhood, your child's brain grows at a remarkable rate and in a specific sequence. At each age your child has a readiness for certain types of learning and brain development. For example, to build "executive functions" during the pre-school years, your child's primary task is to exercise inhibition -- to learn to quiet his nervous system on his own when he doesn't get what he wants as soon as he wants it. This is why child development experts advise parents to use digital devices intentionally with young children and not give them an iPad to quiet them down. The more you know as a parent about your child's brain growth, the better decisions you can make about his use of screentime at every age.

What's in Your baby's Head?

each child is different

Children are born with genetic predispositions for how they respond to novelty, including the compelling sights and sounds of a screen. Then, these predispositions interact with their experience in life and give each child an unique profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, certain categories are used to help us make decisions about how to guide our children. For example, the largest risk factor for pathological video gaming is Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and video gaming has been shown to worsen ADHD symptoms.

Kids are not mature enough to understand the implications of individual differences. If they're not allowed to do what other kids are doing, they resent what they consider to be unfair treatment. It's a challenge for parents today to make good choices for their individual children. Often, when it comes to setting limits on screentime, parents feel guilty if they do and guilty if they don't. It helps to reframe this dilemma as a sign that we're all on the frontiers of learning how to weigh the benefits and risks of screentime, and how that varies for different children at different ages.

Be a Good Role Model

Children do as we do, not as we say. As parents, we need to monitor our own digital habits. We tend to justify our behavior because we need to be on our smartphones and tablets for work and other adult responsibilities. But when we look at our actions through the eyes of our children, what do we see?

A good first step is to promote an awareness of voluntary vs. involuntary attention, not just for our children, but for ourselves. In the words of renowned psychologist, Carl Jung, "If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves."

Children need parental guidance to learn self-control

Teach Self-Control

Our goal is to guide our children, in age-appropriate ways, to monitor their own screentime and want to be responsible users of technology. If all we do is make rules, or use iPad time as a dangling carrot, our kids won't learn how to make good choices for themselves. They'll learn instead, how not to get caught. And they'll be ill-prepared for the day they leave home and your direct supervision.

Research supports the benefits of building habits of voluntary attention -- reading, listening, reflection, physical exercise, being in nature -- for you and your child. And as your voluntary attention grows stronger, together, you can develop strategies to limit the use of screentime that captures attention involuntarily. Your child can grow to use the power of technology to his advantage, without growing dependent on a screen as a crutch to hold his attention.


Best, J.R. & Miller, P.H. (2010).  A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81, 1641-1660. Outlines the developmental sequence and stages in the maturation of executive functions, citing supporting evidence from both behavioral and neuroscience.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J. & Kaplan, S. (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x. Provides support for Attention Restoration Theory (ART), i.e., interactions with natural environments have restorative effects on cognitive functions, specifically "top-down directed attention abilities."

Chan, P.A. & Rabinowitz, T. (2006). A cross-sectional analysis of video games and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in adolescents. Annals of General Psychiatry, 5: 16. doi:10.1186/1744-859X-5-16. Playing more than one hour of console or Internet video games was associated at statistically significant levels with having more frequent and more intense symptoms of ADHD and inattention for ninth and tenth graders.

Ko, C et al, (2009). Predictive values of psychiatric symptoms for internet addiction in adolescents: A 2 year prospective study. JAMA Pediatrics (formerly Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine) 163,  937-943. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.159. "ADHD was the most significant predictor of the occurrence of Internet addiction among all participants." (page 940).

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test. (New York: Little, Brown & Company). The landmark study showing that cognitive control -- resisting a "hot" stimulus by using strategic allocation of attention -- predicts future life success better than any other factor.

Palladino, L.J. (1999). Dreamers, Discoverers & Dynamos. (New York: Ballantine). Describes individual differences among children in the ways in which they respond to novelty and distraction, and gives specific techniques for parents and teachers to honor children's strengths and shore up their weaknesses for paying attention at home and in school.

Palladino, L.J. (2015). Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers(Boston: Shambhala). Describes the impact of screentime on voluntary and involuntary attention; the sequence in the maturation of children's executive functions and how parents can guide the development of a child's ability to pay attention at each stage; and specific ways to implement the evidence-based role modeling and the "3Rs of good attention" - Running (or any type of physical exercise), Reflection; and Rethinking screentime.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown & Company). Describes the benefits of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and brain development.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Reprint Edition (New York: Harper Perennial). Explains how complex neural networks for deep reading interact in a child's growing brain, and the impact of reading (or not reading) lengthy books of substance that require concentration and reflection on brain development.