Technology has its pros and cons. A TV show or iPad app can help kids learn about everything from history to animals. However, too much time with electronic devices starts to hamper attention and steal time away from other important things.
In her latest book Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Balancing Your Child’s Use of Technology psychologist, researcher and attention expert Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, shares a slew of helpful strategies. She shows parents how to help their kids sharpen “voluntary attention.” This kind of attention requires effort and helps us achieve our goals.
Palladino defines voluntary attention as “an act of will — a conscious choice to pay attention to this and not that.” This includes being attentive in class, playing an instrument and listening carefully. She contrasts voluntary attention with “involuntary attention,” which follows the shiniest, strongest stimulus — like Facebook, texting, TV and YouTube.
In Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers Palladino shares the “3 Rs” for sharpening voluntary attention: running, reflection and rethinking screentime. Below are some of her suggestions for each R.
Running represents any kind of exercise — which is key to good attention. This 2013 study found that aerobic exercise predicted higher scores in math and reading for fourth- through eighth-graders. In another 2013 study, one set of fourth- and fifth-graders exercised vigorously for 10 minutes before taking a math test. The other group of students remained sedentary. The group that exercised scored significantly higher on the exam than the other group.
Palladino also cites research exploring exercise’s effects on our biology from Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by psychiatrist John Ratey. Scientists found that exercise leads to critical changes in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. Moving our bodies also generates the brain chemical “brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Ratey calls it “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
Palladino suggests helping your child pick the right physical activities for them. Also, encourage them to try new activities. Keep bikes, balls, ropes and other fun workout gear easily accessible.
Playing outside is especially beneficial for attention. This nationwide study found that kids with attention problems experienced a decrease in symptoms after being in natural settings. This study found improvements in attention after walking in the park.
When it comes to competition, encourage your kids to perform at their personal best, instead of comparing themselves to others. Have your kids join you as you participate in different physical activities. “They may not pursue your sport in the future, but their earliest memories of physical exercise will be happy ones with you,” Palladino writes.
According to Palladino, “A child’s growing brain needs quiet time to develop executive functions, especially voluntary attention.” But kids rarely just slow down or sit. Instead, they tend to be consumed with texting, emailing, and social media. Even schools discourage deep thinking, she writes. Timed tests require quick thinking. Taking too long to answer a question is frowned upon.
Palladino stresses the importance of not jumping in when your child says, “I’m bored.” You can share some guidance. But ultimately it’s up to them to decide how to spend their time. For a preschooler, share different quiet-time activities they can pick from. For a school-age child, you might say, “It’s a great feeling to have nothing that you have to do!” For a teen, say something like, “I wonder what Elon Musk [or his favorite musician or comic book artist] does when he has that feeling?”
Also, encourage your kids to read. Have a book your child loves close by. Keep books easily accessible and visible. Have a new book waiting after they’ve finished a book. Express interest in what they’re reading. And read yourself. The biggest influence on how much kids read is whether their parents read (according to this survey).
Palladino encourages parents to talk to kids about the pros and cons of screentime — “without arguing, threatening, nagging or lecturing.” For instance, with grade-school kids, ask them what they’re not doing, such as reading or moving their bodies; praise them for naming the minuses and pluses of their favorite onscreen activities; and help them make connections between “their good choices about screentime and achieving their goals like better grades.”
You also can do the latter with teens, along with discussing the benefits of taking a tech holiday. (You might want to take one, too.)
While you have the final say on rules, it’s helpful when your child participates in their creation. This could be in small ways. For instance, you have a younger child and the rule is that they can play with the iPad until a timer goes off. Let them choose from different ringtones (which might make them laugh) for the alarm.
Give grade-school kids structured choices, such as: “So let’s see how you want to divide your five hours of playing video games this week. Is there a time when your friends are online playing, too?”
Another helpful strategy is to say “yes, after _______” instead of saying no to your child’s tech requests. For instance, if your child asks if they can play their favorite video game, you say, “Yes, after you finish the outline for your history project.” This creates a tone of agreement, Palladino says. And it can spark a discussion about how homework requires effort, so it’s practical to do first, and moves your child toward their goals.
Like most things, technology isn’t all bad or all good. As a parent, you have the power to support your child in effectively navigating technology and paying attention to what’s important.