Wait, did you say I can still use Facebook??

I mentioned that I would follow-up my post on SCREEN TIME for younger kids with some ideas and suggestions for healthy screen time for older students. To sum up my previous post, I encouraged you to keep children under 2 away from all screens, to look at decreasing or eliminating screen time for preschool and kindergarten children, and to structure limited viewing for school-age children.  Be honest with yourself about how much screen time your child is actually having every day.  The ability to play by oneself and occupy oneself with imaginative thoughts is a learned skill.  Children need practice and time to be able to form that skill.

While even my 1-year-old seems to intuitively know how to turn on, swipe and unlock an iPhone (no, I don’t let her play with it… she just has grabby little hands), that “tech knowledge” does not translate into an understanding of how an iPhone actually works.  In the “olden days” a child could figure out how to build a radio by taking apart and rebuilding the gadgets inside.  But an iPhone, computer, or television is now so complex that even programming one is difficult for the brightest high school students.

You can find support for nearly any view on the internet, but when I look at language and social skill development with my SLP lens, I’m identifying circles of communication.  A message produced, sent, and received, followed by the recipient producing and sending his own message.  Email falls into this category, as does text or instant messaging if received the correct way.  (Many of my students struggle with innuendo, sarcasm, and humor, which are often lost in an email or text, however.)

When we look at how to incorporate screen time into an older child’s life, we can first looks at PDAs and online homework.  Those two systems should be used as a backup system for a planner and binder with in-class notetaking on assignments.  Many schools use Edline of PowerSchool as online systems, or a similar system.  In my experience, teachers often forget to update their online schedules, don’t add valuable information, or are unavailable to respond to after-hours emails regarding assignments.  A middle- or high-school student needs to know how to record their own information in class, asking questions as needed while they are still face-to-face with the teacher.

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At home, having a designated place to charge and keep the cell phone can be vital for homework efficiency for a student.  I often tell my students that if they keep their phone off, Facebook logged out, and computer powered down, they will be much more efficient at completing their homework.  As a result, they will free up “down time” after the work is through to play video games or check their Facebook.  I have one student who has decreased his homework time from 6 hours every night, down to 2 hours every night by staying off the computer.  (He’ll get on at the end of his two hours if he needs to type something.) He LOVES the extra time he has for free time after his homework is finished.  It’s a win-win situation for him.

My thoughts on video games for middle and high school kids?  If they enjoy playing in their down time, let them.  Wait, what??? For a child who is going through the tumultuous process of growing-up-with-hormones-racing and the insecurities that come with that growth, video games are often their only platform for controlling their own destiny.  There should be a few guidelines, however, that parents follow.

  1. Set a certain amount of time on screen time “down time”
  2. Encourage other “down time” in the absence of screens where your child can be alone in their thoughts
  3. Don’t forget about exercise and outside time!
  4. If your child struggles with social skills, beware of the tendency to retreat into video games.  Make sure they are involved in at least one extracurricular that encourages them to be social.

I’m actually a big fan of Facebook and other social media, especially when used well.  Studies have found that the more social a child is, the more frequently they reach out to others through social media.  For a child with limited social skills, great.  For the social child with ADD/ADHD, not so great if they haven’t completed their “to-do” list.  Sit down with your child and decide what the boundaries are.

I often recommend that parents provide a lot of structure around these outlets, at least initially.  Bullying and inappropriate contact can occur, and it is wise to be cautious of your child’s independent use of media.  Placing the family computer and the cell phones in a central place can help you keep tabs of your child’s internet surfing.  A child who can effectively navigate social media gains a confidence and expertise in social relationships needed for school and the workplace.  As parents we can teach them how to let it add value to their lives, rather than taking away from real-life experiences, friendships, and holistic health.

Eye rolls and sighs

I spend an unusual amount of time trying to convince middle school boys that I can help them.  Ah, middle school.  A time when the social complexities can make your head spin, and the students that have a hard time keeping up are left clueless on the side of the crowd.

As a speech-language pathologist, I work to build social communication skills for many students.  For the child who has difficulty making eye contact and can’t think of anything to say, or goes on-and-on about one topic without understanding that you really don’t want to hear any more about cars, imagine the path they take through the hallways of your local middle school.  It is a frightening image for a parent.  Long gone are the cozy walls of the elementary school where your child’s one teacher understood his or her nuances, building a rapport with your child to give him structures and guidance.  Welcome to middle school, where texting and instant messaging spread jokes, gossip, and the latest news faster than teachers or parents can even keep up.

As parents we can set our children up for as much success socially as possible.  We can teach them to say hello politely, to inquire about others (“What could you say to Jimmy when you see him?”), and to make sure to listen when someone else has something to say.  However, there comes a time when a child needs more help, more instruction than what a parent can provide.  And, frankly, these middle school students with social engagement weaknesses are no more interested in listening to their parents than their more typically-engaged peers.

That’s when you seek out some help.  Michelle Garcia Winner is a favorite expert in social communication challenges that students may face.  You can follow her blog here: http://www.socialthinking.com/what-is-social-thinking/michelles-blog.  Besides working individually at school or privately with an SLP, many of these children do best when exposed to social language groups, where they can work on language within the context of a peer group. 

Parents can be a support, recognizing their child’s strengths and acknowledging their child’s weaknesses.  Every student needs activities to be involved in outside of school, whether Boy Scouts, martial arts, or a computer club, in order to build peer relationships and encourage growth.  The self-confidence that comes from excelling at something can carry a child through some of the toughest middle school times.  Martial arts and Boy Scouts are two activities that I recommend to my families.  They build social skills and allow opportunities for engagement with peers while maintaining a very strong structure and consistent expectations and guidelines, which these students often need.

The best thing about a middle school student, with the eye rolls and sighs and the “Why are you sooo lame?” exasperation, is that they won’t be in middle school forever.  And hopefully, with a little guidance and lots of patience, we can help them enter high school with even more tools under their belt.