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Christmas and Back to School are the two hot times for parents to purchase cellphones for their kids, but what are the right age and the right kind of phone for your child and how do you keep them safe in this Digital Age?

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A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics indicates that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds has increased a startling 56% over the last decade. Suicide has become the second-most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults. 

“Pediatricians have indeed seen a huge increase in depression and anxiety in adolescents over the last few years,” says Dr. Nita Shumaker, pediatrician. “I spend a lot of time talking to parents about lifestyle choices affecting mental health.”

While no one knows for sure what is causing this dramatic increase in teen suicide, the trend is extremely disturbing. Some experts are referring to this as a public health crisis and wondering why there is not more of an outcry for something to be done.

Part of the problem may be that no one is clear about what is causing this uptick. It could be technology, violent video games, television shows, bullying, not enough likes on Instagram posts, the ease in which someone can compare their life to their friend’s highlight reel or who knows what else.  

“It is clear that there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to teens and their mental health,” Shumaker says. “I start early talking about letting electronics into the home. It is a portal for both good and evil to enter into children’s lives. And electronics are really not the problem, it’s the all-access pass that so many children have to technology that is the problem.”

Another issue Shumaker notes is sleep deprivation. 

“Sleep deprivation is a torture technique and a well-documented trigger for anxiety and depression,” Shumaker says. “Not getting enough sleep leads to more impulsive behavior as well as poor performance in school.”

The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children and adolescents have no electronics in the bedroom.

“Allowing electronics in the bedroom means that adolescents spend an enormous amount of time alone, unsupervised and on the internet,” Shumaker says. “This means that fundamentally they are separated from the family, which I believe is another potential cause of depression and anxiety. Having electronics in the bedroom means parents don’t put their kids to bed anymore – their electronics do.

“We are missing such valuable time with our children and their mental health is suffering from it. We as a culture are abandoning our children to the internet and it is literally killing them.”

What can we do to help our kids?

  • Your presence matters. Practice what you are trying to teach. Be intentional about disconnecting from your phone and other technology and actively engage with your kids.
  • Set limits with technology use, including amount of time on screens and where technology lives in your home. (And don’t expect your children to thank you for setting boundaries!)
  • Be vigilant about making sure they get enough rest and seriously limit distractions that could keep them awake. Help them make healthy food and exercise choices, as these can impact other areas of life.
  • Talk with them about the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and discuss ways to manage them so they are educated not only for themselves, but also for their friends. Contrary to what some believe, talking about these symptoms or the topic of suicide does not increase the risk of suicide.
  • Make them aware of helpful resources both locally and nationally. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) 
  • Suicide Resource CenterThe American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a whole host of resources for teens and families.
  • Give your teen household responsibilities. You may think your teen already has so much on their plate, but including teens in household chores helps them feel connected and it teaches them responsibility as well as how to manage their time.
  • Create space for your family to do things together on a regular basis. Make sure they are getting helpful information from you, and not just taking their cues from their friends.

Our children are living in a complicated world for sure. Although no one can definitively say why there is such an increase in suicide among our young people, we cannot afford to sacrifice the mental health or lives of our children. We must be intentional in our efforts to help them. Whether they will admit it or not, they are counting on our guidance to navigate this time in their lives.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 3, 2019.

It’s coming. You know it’s coming. Eleven is the magic number. By age 11, 93% of boys and 62% of girls have been exposed to pornographic material. Go ahead and get your mind right before you find it.

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The little girl was playing in the playground area of a fast food restaurant, yelling at her mom, “Watch me, Mama! Watch me!” Consumed by her cell phone, her mom did not hear her daughter calling to her. The child came down the slide, went over to her mom and started tugging on her arm, saying, “Mommy, Mommy, watch me.” At this point the mother looked at her daughter, seemingly irritated at the interruption, and said, “What?”

Perhaps you’ve been that mom at one point or another, and chances are good you’ve witnessed that mom. For some, that moment when a child is occupied on the safe playground is the opportunity to take a little break. For others, constant distractions keep parents from engaging with their kids.

Dr. Jenny Radesky is a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. She and a team of researchers observed 55 caregivers, usually a parent, eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants. 

Out of 55 caregivers, 40 were involved with their phones during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal. The researchers referred to this as “absorption with the mobile device.”

Three adults gave a device to a child to keep them occupied. One adult with a little girl picked up her phone as soon as she sat down, and she used it throughout the entire meal.

“The girl keeps eating, then gets up to cross the room to get more ketchup. Caregiver is not watching her do this; she is looking down at the phone…,” the notes showed. “Still no conversation… Now girl’s head appears to be looking right at caregiver, and caregiver looks up but not at girl…”

How much screen time is too much screen time when it comes to being an engaged parent? Perhaps the better question is, are you frequently distracted by your phone or some other device when your child is trying to get your attention? If you aren’t sure, The Gottman Institute encourages you to consider these questions:

  • When was the last time you played with your child or teenager?
  • What was the last conversation you shared as a family?
  • Ask your kids if they feel you are distracted. Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication. Just avoid responding defensively and ask more about what they need from you.
  • Think about the last conversation you had with an adult. Were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
  • What makes you feel heard? The same things that make you feel heard probably apply to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.

Many young people complain that their parents nag at them for always being on their phone, yet they believe their parents are as consumed by technology as they are. Perhaps one of the most important things for parents to remember is that children are very good at copying the behavior that parents model for them. 

Technology isn’t going away. When parents decide to put down the cell phone, turn off the game, and walk away from the emails on the computer to focus on their children, it sends a significant message: You matter. You are more important than the screen. I value you. 

Face-to-face relationships beat technology any day of the week.

Me: “Hey, dude. Let me check your phone.

My son is 12 and recently got an iPhone. Among the many stressful thoughts I’ve had to entertain because of this new and very significant development was this doozy: “Great, one more thing for me to police.

Me: “Here. While I’m checking your phone, I want you to check my phone.”

Parents checking phones seems like a great recipe for family conflict. The experts debate children’s expectations of privacy, perceptions of mistrust, and voice concerns about how parents searching through phones affect the overall health of the parent-child relationship.

Me: “We’ll check each other’s phones for twenty minutes and then ask each other whatever questions we have. Text messages, social media, browsing history – anything. Okay?”

A few years ago, I conducted an anonymous survey with my high school students about their experiences with their phones and social media. The survey was a tool to help me better understand and serve my students, but I definitely had ulterior parenting motives. So I asked them, “What helps you make good choices online?” The number one answer was immediately surprising to me, but really shouldn’t have been: “Knowing that my parents will check my phone.”

Me: “Listen, we both need to make good choices with our phones. Let’s help each other and keep each other accountable. You can check my phone whenever you want and ask me anything. Deal?”

There are ways to check a child’s phone that move us from confrontation to conversation.

Him: “Sounds good, Dad.”

I can always tell when my kids are in a Fortnite Battle Royale match by the cheering or jeering I hear blaring from their rooms. I might be hearing the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but it is loud and enthusiastic. If you have a child who plays video games, they are probably playing Fortnite, too, (or soon will be) as the Fortnite craze shows no signs of slowing down.

When it comes to video games I typically have two concerns. Is this particular game and its content something I want my child playing, and then more generally, how much time (and money) should my child spend playing video games? It’s worth noting that good, caring, involved parents can come to different conclusions – and that’s okay.

As far as content goes, Fortnite, put out by Epic Games, is rated for 11 year olds and up. The most popular game mode is Battle Royale, which involves up to 100 online players fighting to the death to be the last player standing on an island with various structures and topography. Eliminating the other 99 players involves weapons and violence, but I would describe it as cartoon violence as opposed to bloody, realistic violence.

One thing I really like about Fortnite is that it requires creativity to be successful, not just a trigger finger. Quickly building and manipulating the environment to gain an advantage is an essential part of gameplay. Fortnite is a combination of Minecraft and shooter games with several clever twists thrown in that are genuinely fun.

(If you are concerned about the content of any video game, head to YouTube and watch a few gameplay videos that players have uploaded.)

This brings us back to the general question of how much time we want our kids spending with video games – especially since games like Fortnite can quickly become obsessions.

Parents approach this in a variety of ways. During the school year, some parents allow a set amount of time each week and/or only allow gaming on weekends. Hopefully your family has some tech-free times set aside for reading and playing outside, not to mention structured time set aside for homework and chores. Gaming time might vary during holiday and summer breaks.

Make whatever the latest video game craze is work for you! Parents can leverage video games in many creative ways. For example, I get a ton of extra work done around my house so the kids can earn money for in-game purchases. My child’s behavior and attitude may earn them more or less playing time. And here’s one of my personal favorites as a former English teacher: “I’ll match your reading time with Fortnite time minute for minute!

Perhaps the absolute best leveraging of your child’s Fortnite obsession is to use it to spend time together, either joining in or watching them play. Game on!

We’ve all been there. We watch parents cave to a child’s demands and think, “I would never let that happen with my child. I have no intention of raising an entitled kid.” 

Oh wait – that’s not at all how it actually goes!

But how many times have I been “that” parent, who after a long day, just wants to get home? Even after being so proud of myself for saying no, I eventually give because I just want it to be over. I beat myself up a bit and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

Honestly, most parents don’t set out to raise self-centered children. However, as we try to give our kids what we didn’t have or to ensure their success, we spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and brainpower focused on them. Unfortunately, this leads our kids to believe they are and should be the center of attention everywhere.

In my head, I know this is not a good thing. My professional training shows me this is not conducive to good outcomes for young adults. And research tells me this kind of parenting is not ultimately helpful to my child or any other child. BUT, how do we as parents put the brakes on and change our ways? And why would we want to stop doing things that we believe will ultimately make our children successful adults?

It’s helpful to begin with the end in mind. I don’t know about you, but outside of extenuating circumstances, I am not interested in having my child dependent on her parents for the rest of her life. I want to see her spread her wings and realize all she can do without our direct assistance.

What does it take to raise a child who isn’t entitled?

  • Avoid leading your child to believe he/she is the center of your universe. In real life, your child will not always be the center of attention. Avoid putting this belief in his head – don’t make him the focal point in your home.

  • Teach your child what it means to be accountable and responsible for his/her own behavior. While this one can be painful, it is super-powerful and important. Instead of saving the day when your child encounters a difficult person or a problem, allow your child to problem-solve, figure something out and actually deal with it. This will help build self-confidence. When parents take responsibility for a child’s behavior and removes the consequences (good or bad), kids miss opportunities to learn and grow.

  • Help them understand that just because you want something badly doesn’t mean you automatically get it. People tend to be less appreciative when they get things without earning them. Teach your children that anything worth having is worth working for. It’s a lesson that will serve them well throughout their life. Also, avoid the trap of believing it’s about the stuff.

  • Teach them the importance of giving. Whether helping with chores (without getting paid) or serving in the community, teach children how to be givers. Giving can help guard against a sense of entitlement.

In an interview about hiring practices, Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger, shared that he intentionally takes interviewees out for a meal. He always arrives early and requests that the wait staff intentionally mess up the person’s order. Why? Because he wants to see how they will handle the situation. Through the years he has learned that a person’s heart and their character matter as much – if not more than – what’s in their head.

Looking for more resources? Watch this episode of JulieB TV for an in-depth look on this topic!

Dr. Sheri Madigan and her research team wanted to know the prevalence of sexting behavior (sharing of sexually explicit images and videos through technological means) among youth. Between 2006 and 2016, they conducted a meta-analysis, looking at 39 different studies about sexting that included 110,380 young people from all over the world, including the United States.

Studies indicate that sexting has been on the rise among teens while teen sex has declined. Findings from the meta-analysis indicate that:

  • 1 in 7 teens send sexts, 
  • 1 in 4 receives sext messages, and 
  • 41 percent of teens are having sex according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  • Additionally, older teens are sexting more often than younger teens.

While boys are often portrayed as the requestors of nude images, studies show that girls and boys are equally as likely to participate in sexting. Plus, most of them use their smartphones versus a computer when they sext.

Compared to boys, girls report feeling more pressure to sext and worry they will be judged harshly whether they sext or not. If they do, there is slut-shaming. If they don’t, they are considered a prude. Boys, however, may see sexting as a way to showcase their social status.  

Many sexters assume the images will remain private, but the research indicates that:

  • 12.5 percent of teens are forwarding intimate photos without the sender’s consent. 
  • Another 8.4 percent of teens had one of their own sexts forwarded without their consent.

According to the research team, these findings raise some concerns and challenges. Teens may feel that sexting is an expectation if everybody else is doing it. When sexting is coerced and images are used as a form of blackmail or a threat, the combination of digital insecurity and the teen brain processes could lead to compromised safety. Since teens’ brains are still developing, their capacity to critically analyze digital tools and apps may not be enough to keep them safe. So, what can parents do to help?

If you’re a parent, Madigan encourages you to talk with your teens about healthy dating relationships, peer pressure, digital security, sexuality and citizenship. Make it an ongoing conversation where you’re being proactive instead of reactive.

Also, discuss strategies for dealing with peer pressure surrounding sexting and the potential consequences of sending sexts. Once someone sends an image or video, there is no control over who sees it. 

Family Zone offers these 10 tips to help you deal with sexting:

  • Have open and honest conversations with your children.
  • Don’t abstain from educating your own children about sex and sexualized behaviors. If you don’t educate them, somebody else will.
  • Do not assume that your child will not pass on a nude photo or take one of themselves and share it.
  • Discuss the risks of sexting, including how they would feel if their photos were shared.
  • Be very clear about the law and criminal consequences with your children.
  • Discuss their digital footprint and what that means.
  • Explain their digital citizenship responsibilities.
  • Warn your children to never share photos with people they don’t physically know offline. Consider providing examples of grooming and pedophilia.
  • Attempt to explore if these behaviors are part of a bigger problem with self-esteem and confidence. Like everyone, children like attention and reassurance, but as parents we need to help our kids find healthier ways to feel good about themselves.
  • Ensure they know who they can talk to and where they can get help if needed. They may not want that to be you, so ensure they have a safe person to confide in.

For tips on parenting get our E-book “How to be a Guide for your Teen” Download Here

If you’d like additional resources to help guide these conversations, here are some good ones: Common Sense Media’s Sexting Handbook, Common Sense Media, Connect Safely, Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership.

Have you ever thought about how today’s amazing technological advances affect relationships?

There are very few places where you can’t technologically connect in some way. You can place calls whenever and wherever. It’s fairly inexpensive and there are no additional fees. In real time, you can show or tell anyone what you are eating, post your latest fashion escapade or something that just happened. Who would have guessed you can actually conduct business halfway across the planet with someone you may never meet in person?

Why would anybody need to read books anymore or memorize anything when with a few keystrokes the information can be on a screen in front of you? The world has never been so flat when it comes to communicating.

How does all of this impact relationships?

What if you get an email from a friend who lives out of town who is really struggling? Inventions like Skype or FaceTime make it feel like you are practically there live and in person, which is good. But does it replace being able to hug someone when things are tough?

Do you remember calling home from college once a week to talk to your parents? It required remembering all that happened during the week before and that also meant there were many things you had to figure out on your own because mom and dad weren’t available at the drop of a hat to give you their best problem solving maneuver. So—how are young people impacted by constantly being able to be in touch with their parents when life gets challenging versus taking a stab at trying to figure it out for themselves?

Have you ever experienced miscommunication in a text message? For example, take the word “fine.” You text your spouse saying you want to go out to eat tonight. Your spouse replies, “Fine.” There are tons of ways to interpret that word and the person’s intent behind it.

How about boundaries? At first, constant connectivity was super-exciting for everyone. Now people realize that being reachable anywhere and anytime may not be so great. Constant pings at the dinner table can make it challenging to have meaningful conversation with family and friends.

There is a fair amount of chatter these days about how digital devices and other technology have changed thinking and behavior. Is technology overload a thing? Does constantly switching back and forth between incoming text messages, email and the task at hand affect attention span? Has creativity diminished?

And, have we replaced meaningful conversation with friends and family with photos and the snippets of life we see on Facebook?

Ask yourself. How can you enhance your most meaningful relationships if you change or limit the way you currently use technology?

For tips on parenting get our E-book “How to be a Guide for your Teen” Download Here