Managing marshmallows

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Unfettered access to technology is dangerous

When I was 10 years old, marshmallows seemed the perfect food. They delivered sugar without adulterations of fiber, protein or nutrients of any kind. Wisely, my parents did not keep marshmallows around the house, or at least they did not store them where I could find them. However, one summer day, I found a bag of marshmallows in the cupboard. It had been opened. My 10-year-old understanding of justice assured me that an open bag of anything in the cupboard was fair game.

I don’t know how many surreptitious trips to the cupboard I made that morning or exactly how many marshmallows I ate. But, by noon, I had consumed half the bag. My stomach felt like someone had inflated it with a bicycle pump and my brain felt like squirrels were fighting in there. Shortly after I declined lunch, my mother discovered the half-eaten bag of marshmallows and she was not amused.

I mention this because, in many homes, we are finding that technology provides our children with access to the equivalent of an open bag of marshmallows and we don’t now how to deal with it. Sure, our kids can use tablets and phones to watch a lecture on Dante on YouTube. However, we are about as likely to see that happen as we are to see our children sautéing kale for an afternoon snack.

Multinational corporations have invested billions to perfect technologies to capture our children’s attention and sell products. They know that it’s easier to get kids’ attention with marshmallows than with kale. And, as a nation, our children are feeling the effect of eating all those metaphorical marshmallows.

The San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the book iGen, has documented that:

  • “More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide.”
  • Between 2008 and 2017 teens and preteens experienced a 62 percent increase in depression without a corresponding increase in other age groups.
  • 48 percent of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online.
  • 50 percent of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices.

This doesn’t mean that Instagram, Snapchat, etc. are evil. But it does mean that providing our children unfettered access to technology is like leaving an open bag of marshmallows out on the counter. We can’t be surprised when it leads to a bad outcome.

This means that we parents have a difficult task before us. Technology is nearly ubiquitous and is designed to be as attractive to children as possible. It’s a little disturbing to see how easily toddlers can master the use of a phone or tablet. It’s even more disturbing to watch what happens when you take it away from them. They get upset. Sometimes very upset. The same thing happens when we take technology away from older children.

Nevertheless, that is our job. We have to manage their access to technology. First and foremost, we should postpone when we expose our children to technology. A number of tech executives in Silicon Valley strictly limit their children’s access to technology, and many send their children to tech-free schools. Put off providing your child with a phone for as long as is practical. If you do provide your child with a phone, make it abundantly clear to them: “You do not own a phone. I own a phone that I am allowing you to use.” Then, be careful to ensure they turn the phone in every night a couple hours before bedtime. It assures them a good night’s sleep and keeps everyone honest.

Our Office of Marriage and Family Life website includes a number of tips for parents working to tame technology in the home. Go to marriagefamilylife.seattlearchdiocese.org/kids-technology to learn more.

Lastly, we parents need to manage our own screen time and keep phones away from the dinner table and out of our bedrooms. We are just as subject to temptation and distraction as our children. I have more restraint than I did when I was 10. Nevertheless, I still have to watch it around marshmallows — particularly those circus peanut shaped ones!

Northwest Catholic - September 2019

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.