Parents Ask: How can we help our gifted child learn to use, but not misuse electronic technology?

Teachers and savvy parents are increasingly recognizing that electronic technology offers both great benefits and potential problems for gifted children, depending on the choices they make. The benefits seem obvious; the potential problems, not so much. Smart phones and iPads, as well as computers, the Internet and social media provide instant access to information and contact with others. This can expand children’s capacity to acquire information and stay in touch with friends. All good.

But teachers also find that technology is often so overused and misused that even bright students are not learning how to spell, use correct grammar, punctuate, write complex sentences or develop their ability to formulate and articulate complex analytical thoughts. For example, texting, while helping children communicate rapidly in jury-rigged shorthand, also compromises their ability to acquire important writing skills. Likewise spellcheck and grammar check enable students to write without learning essential language skills or how to express nuanced ideas. And who needs to know basic math when a smart phone will compute for you?

In addition to undermining academic growth, misuse of technology can also be a barrier to emotional and social development. Heading the list are texting, Facebook and Instant Messaging (IMing). When these become the primary way of communicating—as they are for many children—children are deprived of the opportunity to learn how people are really feeling by reading verbal and nonverbal cues. This not only damages children’s social growth, but also limits their ability to develop intimacy with others throughout their lives.

Here’s what parents can do to protect and nurture a child.

goldstar Keep in mind that what works for you may not for your child. Perhaps it was our good fortune that we adults were raised without the benefit of instant access to electronic technology. As a result, most of us learned to compute, write coherently, express complex ideas, socialize personally and acquire the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. So, given this strong foundation, excessive reliance on electronic technology now will probably not impair us as much.

But today’s children will not have these same opportunities for personal and academic growth unless parents are savvy and committed to helping them develop these skills. Gifted children often have difficulty developing appropriate social relationships with their age-mates. Using electronic technology as a crutch can make this even more challenging. Failure to develop meaningful friendships and acquire appropriate social skills can impair your child for life.

goldstar Model healthy values. If you are texting or on the phone at meals or in the car, how can you expect your child to believe you when you tell her that it’s not acceptable for her to do so? Instead, be proactive about using these occasions to converse, learn more about your child’s day and help her develop her social skills. Ask yourself: how would you feel if your child, at age 16, were to do what she sees you doing when you drive? Are you texting or researching with your phone at your son’s soccer game whenever he checks on you? Do you dive into your smart phone or iPad to immediately research any area of dispute or unclarity during a conversation? What message does your behavior send about your real priorities? How does it affect your child’s?

goldstar Confer with your spouse and agree about the skills and character traits you want to foster in your child. Agreeing on these skills and traits is the first step toward helping your child successfully acquire them. Think beyond the narrow scope of technology. What do you want for your child? In addition to academic success as measured by grades, do you want him to develop a passion for learning? To have the ability to think analytically and process information? What character traits do you prize? Conscientiousness? Optimism? Persistence when things are not easy? Cooperating well with others? Approaching new situations confidently? Being comfortable meeting new people and developing close friendships? Being well-rounded?

Then honestly assess your child’s progress. This will help you refocus your strategy to nurture your child’s overall development in healthy ways. What’s on track? Where would you like to see improvement? If your child is to mature in the healthy ways you have identified, how should electronics fit into her life?

goldstar Encourage your child to develop the character traits and skills you value. Tell her clearly what you value. Explain why. Praise your child when she demonstrates them or attempts to do so. Praising effort is often more important than praising outcomes because consistently making the effort eventually leads to success. Encouraging your child may mean role playing social situations that trouble her. It may mean making sure she’s involved in activities where she participates but may not excel. It may also mean helping her get involved in sports or extracurricular activities where she learns teamwork.

goldstar Discuss the appropriate use of electronics. Emphasize that they should be supplemental tools for learning and enhancing communication with others, but should never be considered primary means. Explain both the advantages of technology and the reasons why it must be used appropriately.

You will need to make this an ongoing conversation, depending on the age of your child and the technologies she has access to. For example, texting should be discussed when your daughter is closer to getting her own phone. Prior to that you may need to need to focus on what’s acceptable behavior with an iPad or computer. Factor in your assessment of your child’s social skills and developmental needs. These vary from child to child and from developmental milestone to developmental milestone.

goldstar Identify for your child what’s inappropriate. Start by eliminating what’s not healthy or is outright dangerous, such as disclosing personal information or being in chat rooms with people she does not personally know. Be clear also that she is never to use technology to bully or gossip. Is it ever appropriate to text at school? Should your child be allowed to have a phone at school? What would make that necessary? Not having a phone at school eliminates the temptation to text rather than interact personally. At what age do you consider Facebook appropriate? Make clear what’s acceptable and that you will check regularly. Explain your reasons, including the long-term damage an impulsive or inappropriate post can have, such as compromising college admissions or getting a job.

goldstar Set guidelines and post them. For example, she must never give away personal information to a stranger online. The time your child is allowed to be involved with social media each day should be spelled out and consequences established for exceeding them. The two-to-one rule is a good starting point: your child loses the right to use a technology for two days for every day she exceeds the limits you set. Because it is more public and enduring, consequences for misusing Facebook or IMing must be more serious, perhaps losing online privileges for two weeks for every inappropriate post.

goldstar Enforce limits. Nothing changes behaviors more effectively than following through on predicted consequences. Make it clear that you will check your child’s phone regularly (daily if you must) to be sure that she does not violate guidelines you have established on texting, including both the amount of time, the time of day and the people. If she uses her phone at school, apply the two-to-one rule.

goldstar Bottom Line: Clarifying the appropriate use of electronic technology for your child’s current developmental progress, combined with your willingness to set limits and enforce consequences, will go a long way to assuring that your child learns to use technology to enhance her growth, not stunt it.

Dennis O’Brien is a licensed clinical social worker, experienced educator and therapist. In addition to writing educational materials used by the Washington University School of Medicine Dept. of Psychiatry and weekly columns on parenting for the Suburban Journals, he writes monthly columns for St. Louis Moms and Dads, and regular columns for CHARACTERplus, Family Connection (Mo. Dept of Mental Health) and Gifted Association of Missouri. O’Brien’s April 6 column, “Prevent teen suicide by addressing it,” won the 2010 Missouri Institute of Mental Health award for outstanding reporting on suicide.

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