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Balancing 21st Century Skills and Healthy Habits

Jenny Linker, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences, NDSU

Parents often are challenged by today’s “digital natives” (children who have grown up using technology such as computers and mobile devices) and their numerous opportunities to be “plugged in.”

A survey of 2,600 children by the Common Sense Media Group found that tweens (ages 8 to 12) spend an average of 4½ hours a day with screen-based media, while teens (ages 13 to 18) report more than 6½ hours a day. Parents should employ
purposeful screen use, modeling and boundary strategies to develop tech-savvy children with healthy habits.

While screen time is associated with increased obesity and decreased sleep in children, what may be more important is to examine screen use. Why are your children using technology devices? Are the devices used for education? Entertainment? Socializing? Why are we allowing or encouraging device access? Are we using devices as baby sitters or to pacify a fussy child?

Purposeful screen use may yield benefits if it requires two-way interaction between the child and the device, resulting in increased brain activity. Oftentimes, devices such as televisions are centered on one-way communication in which the child is a passive recipient of content. Parents need to critically examine the content and how their children engage with it prior to its use. Numerous “educational” apps are available to download, but many lack purposeful interaction.

Modeling is very powerful. As you fully engage in face-to-face conversations, rather than texting, you teach your child appropriate device use and etiquette. Other adults in your child’s life also should model appropriate practices. For example, schools that make use of active indoor recess kits during inclement weather show that technology devices do not need to be the default option during free time.

One way parents can develop healthy habits is to establish technology boundaries by designating tech-free zones in the home (such as bedrooms and the dinner table) and implementing time limits for recreational device use. Bob, the screen time manager for televisions, allows parents to create personalized limits for each child. The Lockwork app for Android smartphones can limit internet use while maintaining the phone’s calling functions. Parental controls on PC and Apple computers also are available to limit recreational time.

Children will need technology skills to succeed in the 21st century. However, remember that they also need other skills, such as interpersonal skills and creativity, to be successful. Parents play a crucial role in the development of both.

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