By Barbara Postma.

Without question, the information age and the ready access to technology, both for leisure and for learning, is a great asset to homeschooling families. Whether you use screen time for researching and studying, or for relaxing and communicating, you know the benefits of being connected through the digital world. The numbers show that, as a society, we are all spending more and more (and more!) time online and on our devices, and so are our kids.

Debates are ongoing about the impact of all of this screen time. On one side you have curriculum and classes built around coding, programming, and Minecraft. On the other side, you have tech-savvy businesspeople, like the late Steve Jobs and many others, saying that they severely limit the amount of screen time their children get. So, which is it? Is the digital revolution a blessing or a curse?

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist who specializes in children, remarks that “We’ve put digital devices into the hands of our children. We haven’t even figured out television yet. What have we done?” His concern is not borne out of the device itself, but rather out of our children’s readiness (or lack thereof) to handle the technology and temptation.

This concept of “readiness” is key. A young child needs to learn how to function in the real world before they will be able to cope with the virtual world. Unfortunately, we often expect they will develop their readiness online and then hope those skills transfer well to the real world. But do they?

For example, in order to prepare our children for online safety, we teach them about who to chat with, what information to keep secret and private, how to hide their identity, and when to quickly leave a website or scenario without taking the time or risk of working to resolve it. Those are wise guidelines for the web, but when they cross over into real life (and, according to Dr. Neufeld, they do) they stunt human interaction and the ability to develop good attachments to the loving peers and adults that they know. In the right order of operations, a child would grow in self-assurance and self-confidence in the real world, they would know what healthy relationships and interactions look like, and they would value conflict resolution. With those tools in their readiness kit, they would be able to handle cyber-bullying, inappropriate advances in social media spaces, and online arguments.

Even something as simple as learning how to be a good sport needs to be developed in real life before transferring to digital gaming (and not the other way around). Online games require no sense of lack or loss, no sense of patience or delayed gratification. If your character fails to progress past a certain level, you can even google game hacks that will allow you to jump levels without actually persevering to achieve success. You can, at anytime, hit ‘restart’ and a game in which you are failing suddenly becomes an exercise in getting whatever you want without learning how to really overcome. What happens when those habits transfer into real life interactions (and they will)? You find yourself with angry, impatient, and sore-losing children. Playing games in real life requires patience, skill, cheering for others, and losing (and winning!) graciously. You don’t learn that online.

Of course it is easy to pick on online video games. Many parents limit screen time as it pertains to games. But certainly giving your child unlimited time to research websites is helpful for building a solid academic foundation, right? Not necessarily. The information age is characterized by unlimited, instant answers to every thing you’ve ever wanted to know. This is, plain and simple, information overload! As a result our children’s attention spans get overwhelmed by the deluge of information and tune out in self defense. What ends up happening is that our kids spend a lot of time looking at the screen but not really taking in the information. This translates into real-life attention deficiencies. We are so continually overloaded with digital stimuli that even when our kids are in a real life conversation or lecture, they begin to tune out because they’ve already hit their information capacity while learning online.

Clearly, we live in the digital age. That isn’t going to change. But as parents, we ought to be mindful about what our kids are ready for. Just as we are careful to select movies, books, and music based on our kids’ readiness, so we ought to also guard when and how often we introduce our children to the virtual world. With thought, consideration, and care the benefits of the digital world can certainly outweigh the risks, but the risks are great and worthy of careful consideration.

For further research see Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s talk “Raising Children in a Digital World” on Youtube or for purchase on his website. Other excellent resources are “Boys Adrift” by Dr. Leonard Sax and “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds” by Jane M. Healy, PhD.