Digital devices are competing with parents to form a relationship with their children, says a parenting expert.

“Among individuals aged 12-24 (in Canada), nearly 100 per cent of them use the Internet as of 2010,” said Deborah MacNamura, director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counseling and family resources centre. “Canadian connectivity is the highest it’s ever been, with Vancouverites topping the polls.”

According to a poll in 2010 (Kaiser Family Foundation), youth aged from 8-18 spend 10 hours and 45 minutes a day accessing technology on average. “Teenage internet addiction is on the rise with multiple pediatric warnings,” MacNamura said.

In a presentation to parents at St. Ann’s Church, Abbotsford, she warned of the emotional substitute this “unprecedented access” technology provides to children.

Increasing technological connection to their peers can also cause children to use these peers to fulfill “attachment hunger,” placing them in a higher hierarchy of respect than parents or authoritative figures.

Another issue with child development and technology is the free and immediate access of information, MacNamara. “It interferes with healthy brain growth, undermines our ability to control content, and suffocates tentative individuality as well as tender emerging ideas, curiosity, and reflection.”

She pointed out studies show a connection between delayed cognitive development in children with regular exposure to electronic media. With plenty of distractions, devices take young children away from the real world, removing the required stimuli to develop their cognitive muscles.

“The problem with today’s digital media and social connectivity is it takes children away from the adults who are meant to be raising them,” MacNamura said. “It sabotages their ability to be fulfilled by what we (parents) provide.”

MacNamura said children require emotional bonds with their parents. “Children need to be freed from their attachment hunger by adults who are assuming this responsibility.”

Traditionally, children have oriented themselves around the adults in their life, said MacNamara. “But in the last 50 years, kids are increasingly taking their cues, values, and bearings from each other.”

When children would rather be with their peers, “they can feel miles away from the adults who care for them. They become difficult to take care of and readily make decisions without adult influence.”

MacNamura suggested several methods of fostering healthy parenting, such as ensuring electronic devices are in publically accessed, high-traffic; banning electronics in bedrooms; and frequently interacting with children in a friendly manner, especially before allowing them access to screens.

“As parents, our job is to be a buffer to the digital world until our children are mature enough to handle it.”

Young children develop optimally when engaged in play, she said. “Play is where the self is truly expressed. It is where growth and development first take place, and preserves psychological health and well-being.”

Once children develop as “separate beings, full of their own ideas, intentions, meanings, aspirations, preferences, and values,” they are fit to explore the technological jungle by themselves, she said.

“We should not send our children into the digital world empty-handed, with only their technological tools in tow,” MacNamura said. “Maturity is the prerequisite for true digital citizenship and to this end, adults are still the best device.”

The way parents raise children “has drastically changed with the development and pervasiveness of technology,” said Eileen Gaudet, a St. Ann’s Family Group member who organized the event. “We didn't grow up with smartphones, and all of this technology so it is new territory for most of us.”

As parents, practical skills such as educating and communicating positively “can help us stay connected with our children so they can thrive and develop healthily, and help them navigate this new digital world,” Gaudet said.

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