Barely 24 hours after junior high and high school parents received a reminder about the dangers of social media, which ended up being a “noncredible threat” to a local campus, they were welcomed to a discussion Monday about very real dangers in the digital landscape that threaten children.
Hosted by Tom Kersting, a renowned author who runs a private practice in New Jersey and lectures around the country a couple times a month, “Parenting in the Digital Age” was a William S. Hart Union High School District event focused on ways parents can protect their kids.
“The mental health of our kids is one of the most important subjects parents can learn about,” said Hart district board member Joe Messina, “and the effects a smartphone has had on our children is almost as bad as drugs.”
Kersting talked about how spending from six to 10 hours a day in front of a screen is creating a harmful form of what he referred to as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to learn and adapt around the activities that are stimulating it, such as digital screens.
This adaptation through constant exposure and stimulation, he said, limits the brain’s ability to grow in other areas.
He also said; based on his anecdotal experience in 25 years of practice and studies he’s seen that back the observations up, prolonged screen use can correlate to higher levels of depression, anxiety and attention deficit-related concerns in juveniles.
After his talk, he fielded questions and comments from the dozens of parents in the crowd at Hart High’s auditorium who seemed eager to share their challenges and what’s worked for them.
Kersting said the behavior starts in elementary school, perhaps even before they have a phone, maybe even on social media, when they figure out how to get on their network after school.
They’re looking at everyone else’s “highlight reel,” Kersting said, and the comparisons become inherent, leading to a rise in stress and tension that can happen on a daily basis, he said.
One of the best things parents can do, he said, is just making sure their children understand what self-esteem is by building on their sense of self with a basic exercise — taking 10 to 15 minutes per day for a self-inventory and reflect on what they like about themselves and what they’re grateful for, which Kersting described as true self-esteem.
Of course, he did offer one tip: “The No. 1 most important thing right now is that a kid’s phone should never be in that zip coat when they go to bed at night,” he said, adding that in addition to any social or emotional challenges, a sleep-deprived child who’s been on his phone all night could have a number of other health problems.
“That’s something I think we really, really need to make our kids understand because it’s so darn important,” Kersting said.
Prior to the start of the talk, Superintendent Mike Kuhlman said the district was keenly aware of the challenges that smartphones can bring to students, including attention spans, which is why the district banned them on its junior high campuses.
He said the district was looking forward to hosting conversations with the community later this school year on the potential for expanding that policy to its high school campuses.
On Sunday, the district sent out an alert regarding a threat to a campus spread on social media that was ultimately deemed noncredible.
A Leona Valley resident who lives up Bouquet Canyon, Jerry Vlach called the talk “timely” and appreciated that the district was taking the time to talk to parents.
“There’s a lot of concerns on parents’ minds and what’s going on with the internet and all the things that are available now that weren’t there when I was a kid,” said Vlach, who attended the lecture with his seventh-grade son. “How do we manage that and make it healthy and make it so a kid doesn’t have a bad experience.”
He also said as a parent who didn’t grow up with a lot of the technology that’s available now, he’s trying to get ahead of some of the concerns, including the ones he hasn’t heard of yet.
“Sometimes you may not be aware of it until you’re going, ‘Oh, I wish I had known that yesterday.’”