by Justin Batt
If you’ve been out to eat at a restaurant recently, then you’ve most likely seen what has become a common occurrence in our society today: a family sitting at a table together, but instead of connecting with each other, their noses are buried in a phone or tablet. Perhaps this is what it looks like when your family goes out for a meal together—or when you sit down for a meal at home. Our children may be growing up in the digital era, but we as fathers also need to recognize the immense problem that’s being created by what we’ll call the “digital dilemma.”
The trend affects the large majority of America’s children today, yet there’s evidence that this digital addiction is disproportionately affecting children from lower-income families. A recent New York Times article brought up this misperception of “the digital divide,” where many were concerned with the fact that wealthier families and wealthier school districts have greater access to digital technology, giving them an edge in school and beyond.
However, the article also notes that wealthier families are beginning to put sharp limits on screen time, while poorer families are expanding their use of digital technology and screen time more than ever. And there is far more promotion of iPads and computers in lower-income school districts than in higher-income schools, including those in tech areas like Silicon Valley. The higher income districts are going back to more play-based activities, amounting to five-and-a-half hours a day of screen time versus eight hours a day for lower-income children.
Why does this matter? Because social media and gaming apps are made to be addictive. The stimulation from a text, playing a game or connecting with someone through social media creates a surge of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure-reward chemical, so when lower-income children are using technology for 45% longer than children from higher-income families, they’re getting more surges of dopamine, creating a stronger behavioral addiction even faster.
As fathers, what can we do to curb this digital dilemma before it has lasting detrimental effects on our children? I believe these three tips will make a substantial impact on our children and, eventually, our digital-addicted culture:
1: Model Good Digital Habits.
As adults, we need to be mindful of our own screen time. If we want to encourage our children to appropriately use digital technology, then we have to model it. After all, when it comes to teaching children, far more is caught than taught.
If we fathers come home from work and are more engaged with our devices than we are with our family, that’s a problem. As tempting as it may be to want to “zone out” and scroll through social media, check sports headlines or finish up a few outstanding emails, is it worth it?
I have a friend who deletes his social media apps from his phone every weekend and then re-installs them on Monday morning. This allows him to physically and emotionally be present with his family without the distraction of social media. In our home, we have a phone box that we all put our phones in right before dinner. This again is a way to set physical boundaries and demonstrate that connecting with each other is important in our home. Maybe you’re more disciplined and can simply put the digital technology away when you’re with family members. However you handle it, make sure you’re creating habits and behaviors that model the positive and appropriate use of digital technology.
2: Encourage Curation and Creation, Not Only Consumption.
If you were to ask a group of middle school students what they want to be when they grow up, at least half of them would say YouTube stars. Two of my four children will say the same at any given moment you ask them the question.
My children absolutely engage in digital technology. We have a YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter handle, and Instagram channel for Daddy Saturday, the platform we created to help fathers be intentional and engage their children. We leverage social media and digital technology all the time, but we’re doing it as creators and curators, not just as consumers, and that’s the big difference. None of my kids have their own social media accounts, but they all help me as part of the Daddy Saturday social media crew. We’ve also created a business plan and allowed each of them to develop an online business, website, and business collateral.
My wife Heather and I are working hard to ensure that our children are making positive contributions to society as creators and not just consumers. Creating their own content, engaging with others, and learning to use digital platforms for a potential business building tool or a branding tool are incredible skill sets for any child to possess.
3: Make Digital Time an Asset and Not a Liability.
By teaching our kids to create content and not just consume it, we are teaching them skills they will be able to use later in life if they have the need, as well as a mindset that it’s important to be more than just a consumer in anything they do. This is an incredible asset to instill in our children at a young age.
Sure, there are certain times where we veg out and just watch funny videos on YouTube on our TV, but most of the time we’re watching YouTube to get ideas for our next Daddy Saturday event, or we’re getting ideas for content we could share on our platforms. Additionally, we are watching as a family and as their father, I have control over the content which allows me to minimize the risk that they’ll see something inappropriate.
As a father, I work hard to demonstrate a healthy balance of using screen time for productivity and pleasure, and I’m working to teach my children the same. For example, my two oldest boys love computers—they’d be on one all day if we let them. So we’ve invested in Bitsbox, a monthly subscription program that teaches them how to code. They’re learning a language that’s the backbone of most of what we do in our society today and will be an asset for them in the years to come.
Digital technology is the future. How we utilize it and set limits on it—both for ourselves and our children—will help shape their future and determine how well we address the digital dilemma.
This article is adapted from Justin Batt’s book, Daddy Saturday, where you’ll find more advice on modeling healthy digital behaviors for your children. In addition to being an author, Justin is founder of Daddy Saturday (DaddySaturday.com), a platform to create intentional fathers who raise good kids that become great adults. He is also an entrepreneur, business advisor, healthcare consultant, and public speaker. Justin and his wife Heather have four children and live in South Carolina.