Grandparenting in the Digital Age: The Highs, The Lows, and Three Questions to Consider

On Thursday, April 18, 2019, PEPS hosted a group of local grandparents gathered together to learn about Grandparenting in the Digital Age. Most of the 25 attendees had similar concerns: Why are screens so tempting for young children; How can we manage screen time for our grandkids (especially when our rules might differ from parent rules); What options, if any, exist for “healthy” screen use?  Our guest speaker, Emily Cherkin, works with schools and families on how to balance technology in our daily lives, and was on hand to present information and answer questions.  She shares with us here the research, things to consider and tips.

One of my favorite childhood memories is stopping by my grandparent’s house on the way home from school. We were lucky enough to live down the street from them, so a stop at their house in the afternoons usually meant a bowl of chocolate ice cream with a scoop of homemade raspberry jam on top. It was a lovely way to start the afternoon. Nowadays, I realize how fortunate I am today that my own two children, ages 8 and 11, have four healthy and involved grandparents in their life, and that they get to see them several times a week.

Emily with her grandkids

At the PEPS Grandparent Happy Hour event last week, attendees shared their ‘highs and lows’ just as PEPS Group participants might, this time around grandparenting and technology. In listening to these grandparents’ responses, I was struck by how many wish to do right by their adult children and find a way to manage screen time peacefully (when it is allowed). Numerous grandparents mentioned that sharing videos and photos with their grandchildren was a special bonding experience, and they loved the ease with which they could look up information. On the “low” side, many grandparents reported the struggle with the seeming “addictiveness” of the screens; the ensuing struggles to get kids off devices; and the blurred lines about technology use in general, often wondering if it is a tool or a toy.

Grandparents Happy Hour

In my discussion with this devoted group of grandparents, with grandchildren ranging in age from not even born yet to teenagers, I highlighted three key points:

First, it is important for all of us to know that screens impact brains and learning. Despite those who claim otherwise, including tech companies, young brains do NOT need technology to be successful in the future. In fact, research shows that 1 in 4 children show delays at school entry. While we do not yet have longitudinal data on the impact of screens on young brains (the iPad, after all, is barely 8 years old), decades of research about child development tell us that the most effective way children learn is through messy, tactile, three-dimensional play. Several preschool teachers have shared with me that their students today are much less willing to get their hands muddy or covered in paint.

Secondly, we know from decades of research that child development is relational. What this translates to is that kids learn best when they are free to explore their environment in the context of meaningful relationships to other human beings. When we rely heavily on technology to teach or entertain our children and grandchildren, we bypass opportunities to practice critical skills– the ones that WILL matter for future success, like communication, creative expression, and problem-solving.

Finally, I offered the grandparents a list of three questions to consider when choosing technology:

  1. What do we gain?
  2. What do we lose or replace?
  3. What do we model?

Research shows that setting limits on screen time does have long-term, positive benefits and we can start by being thoughtful about how, when, and why we offer technology.

I believe in leaving my audiences feeling empowered, so we discussed what grandparents can do right now to help their grandchildren – and quite frankly, their adult children and themselves – find balance with technology. Here are a some of those ideas:

  • Establish screen-free zones when the grandchildren are with you and decide what you want the rules to be in your own home. Have conversations with your adult children about the tech rules at grandparent houses vs. grandchildren’s homes. They may be different from Mom and Dad’s rules. Grandparents can say, “This is what we do at Grandma’s house.”
  • I encourage families to talk about how screens fit with their family’s values. This concept can also be applied to gift-giving. One of the perks of grandparenting is giving fun presents at holidays and birthdays. Especially if the gift you are considering is tech-based, it is worth a conversation with your adult child to see how this might complicate the screentime issues at home. Even better, consider a gift that encourages that messy, tactile, three-dimensional learning that might be missing – and do it WITH your grandchild.
  • To that point, as Devorah Heitner says, “Monitoring cannot substitute for mentoring.” Grandparents can be positive role models for children, and one way you can do this is to live your life out loud! Children are constantly developing executive functioning skills such as planning, organizing, time management, and emotion regulation. Living your life out loud means narrating the things you do as you do them (“I’m putting my shoes by the door so I don’t trip over them when we walk in”), explaining the steps you take to complete a task (“When we make cookies, we preheat the oven first, so it’s ready when we need it”), and modeling how YOU use technology (“I’m sending your Mommy a message about this great block tower we just built together!”).

I once heard the observation that parenting is the investing, whereas grandparenting is reaping the dividends. When grandparents take an interest in helping grow healthy and happy children, everyone wins.

Author’s Bio

Emily CherkinEmily Cherkin is the mastermind behind The Screentime Consultant, LLC, and has worked with families and schools in the Pacific Northwest for 15 years.  A former middle school teacher, she now consults with families, schools, and children on how to be “tech-intentional”, balancing using technology as a tool, while setting clear and consistent limits.  She is a graduate of the University of Washington, completed her Master of Education at the Lesley University in Boston, and is an active member of the “Screens for Schools” Working Group for the Children’s Screentime Action Network in Boston. Emily has also served as a PEPS Board Member, Group Leader, and Guest Speaker.  As a parent to an 8- and 11-year-old, Emily understands the challenges of parenting in the digital age, and she brings compassion and empathy to her work.

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