By Dan Coulter
When do smartphones become dumbphones?
I saw an example a few days ago as my wife and I ate in a local Greek restaurant. We tucked into a lamb gyro (me) and a Spanakopita (her), and watched three adults at a table near us ignore the three elementary school-aged children who were with them. The adults were all focused on their smartphone screens. The kids entertained themselves and periodically (and unsuccessfully) tried to engage the adults.
As usual, I saw this scenario through the lens of how this behavior can affect families dealing with Asperger Syndrome and autism. And it ain't pretty.
For the record, I'm speaking as a tech lover/gadget guy. In the 1990s, I developed the computer standards for AT&T's worldwide PR organization. I'm the guy my in laws call for tech support when their PCs, tablets, or phones give them the metaphorical raspberry.
So I'm talking as a tech true believer when I wave a red flag about getting seduced by your smartphone.
As parents of children on the autism spectrum, how do we hit the tech nail on the head and not drop the digital hammer on our foot?
1. Set a good example. Be aware of your children's needs and put appropriate priorities on when you should attend to them and when you can engage with your tech devices. You're always teaching by example, even when you don't mean to. If you ignore them in favor of tech, that gives them license to do the same to you as they grow.
2. Start them on tech at the right time. Children under two years of age need to learn from real world interactions. Experts suggest introducing them to screens, with supervision, about the time they're old enough to begin preschool. While there are great software apps for kids, the earliest parents should consider letting children fly solo with their own smartphones is between ages 11 and 13.
3. Learn enough to manage your children's use of tech. Kids learn tech faster than adults because their brains are programmed to learn. Even tech savvy parents who routinely use smartphones may find their kids quickly surpassing them in using apps or programming a DVR. But we dads and moms need to make sure we know enough to monitor what younger kids are doing – and definitely enough to engage the parental control features of the digital devices they can access. If you run into a digital brick wall, try searching for answers online in YouTube tutorials. Need hands-on instruction? Seeking out another adult who knows what you need may be a better solution than having your child tutor you. Just sayin. FYI, public libraries are increasing going digital and a reference desk librarian may point you in the right direction – for free.
4. Use tech safely, and teach your children well. On December 7, 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Distracted Walkers Pose Threat to Self and Others.” The article cited an increase of emergency room visits due to smartphone users not paying attention to where they were going. That's not to mention the people who are dying because drivers are distracted while texting. Setting a good example for your kids will help keep you all safe. Tech safety also extends to helping your child deal with the dark side of social networking, such as cyberbullying, ID theft, and invitations to meet an online “friend” in person. Doing a Google search for “cyber safety kids” brings up a wealth of sites with information that can help you protect your child.
5. Take advantage of social trends that show many typical children who are growing up with smartphones are not developing needed social skills. Ever seen two teens in the same room text each other instead of talking? If you help your child learn basic face-to-face social skills at a time when their peers are falling behind, you can help your offspring compete on a more level social playing field. They might even surpass peers socially. Wouldn't that be a hoot? Ironically, there are computer programs that help children on the autism spectrum learn about face-to-face interactions. Such software apps and videos work best when they're part of an overall program that includes practice with real-life interactions.
6. You also can use social skills training to combat the tendency of children who are socially awkward (and rejected by peers) to avoid face-to-face interaction and retreat into computer gaming and other solitary tech activities.
7. Use your inside knowledge of your children to tailor how you allow and encourage them to interact with tech. Your children may be ready for tech sooner or later than other children – and you're in the best position to make that call. You're also the best person to help make sure they get a good diet of quality digital experiences and limit the empty calories of meaningless games or mindless entertainment. If you need help, you can consult a pediatrician, counselor, or other health expert for guidance.
If you show your children they're more important than your smartphone, guide their tech use, and learn the skills necessary to understand how tech is affecting their lives, you'll be ahead of the game.
You can be the family in the restaurant that others admire because you're interacting face-to-face with your children. Assuming the other diners look up from their smartphones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of 13 videos about Asperger Syndrome and autism, including "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills." Dan's videos are available as DVDs and downloads. You can find more articles and information on Dan's website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright Dan Coulter 2016 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved