The old parenting adage — be “firm, fair, and consistent” — has never been more important in establishing boundaries and expectations for children. What’s new in the world of parenting is the frenetic pace of technology growth and its impact on the already rocky road of family dynamics.

As the truancy officer for Walla Walla County, I see more and more parents and kids dealing with the draw of gaming, streaming and social media and its influence on communication and relationships.

Last school year, after referring a youth on my truancy caseload to a local mental health therapist, I realized I underestimated the problem the student had with internet use.

He presented as extremely depressed and emotionally flat, refusing to attend school. His parents said he rarely came out of his room and wouldn’t interact with family or friends. Underlying the concerning behavior was lack of sleep, and I learned his sleep schedule was upside down because of excessive hours spent online. The therapist said his behavior was so problematic that it could be a sign of internet addiction.

When it comes to screen time affecting attendance, the bottom line is that too much screen time on school nights usually makes kids really tired. Tired kids struggle to get to school on time.

If unchecked, tired kids start getting to school late. A tardy here and there can lead to missed classes (in middle and high school) or critical blocks of instruction or engagement time (in elementary school). Missed hours can lead to full day absences, which sometimes triggers an emotional tug of war for parents who must communicate with school officials whether their child is excused or unexcused.

Throw in the roller coaster world of life — health care, finances, transient housing, divorce, single parenting, elder care, substance use, etc. — and the stress can become overwhelming.

There is growing research suggesting some people are affected so severely by the lure of technology and screen-time that it impacts their quality of life. I worry most about situations where teens threaten family members or talk about suicide if their device, game or internet access is taken away. If this behavior describes someone close to you, I recommend seeking professional help immediately.  

In emergency situations where harm is imminent, call your local crisis line (509-524-2999 in Walla Walla County, 509-382-1164 in Columbia County, 541-276-6207 in Umatilla County).

In non-emergency situations, if you are unsure about where to begin, schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician, and describe the concerning behavior in detail. For young adults 18 and over, an appointment with a primary care physician could be the most appropriate first step.

The medical staff can then refer for additional help, if necessary. Depending on insurance coverage, there are a variety of behavioral/mental health services available starting with diagnostics (assessment and evaluation). This process establishes what the problem is and suggests ways of responding (education, counseling, treatment, medication management, etc.).  

While no means an endorsement of this private, for profit facility, its website (netaddictionrecovery.com) may be a helpful resource. This web address provides information on ReSTART, a self-described Behavioral Addiction Center in Bellevue, which touts its program as the first of its kind in the nation.

They work with adults and teens with “depression, anxiety, attention, and relational concerns” by providing treatment for “video game and internet addiction and screen-time overuse.” ReSTART offers screening tools on its website so individuals can take inventory of their device/gaming habits and parents can determine whether someone close to them has problematic behavior needing intensive, residential treatment and support.

Remember, don’t hesitate to ask for help if worried about how technology use affects your child’s unique personality and perspective on how to balance school responsibilities with expectations at home and relationships with peers. Talk to your children’s teachers about their classroom behavior.

 Set up an appointment with their school counselor to review grades, credits and academic progress. Tell your children that in today’s world of dangerous, loud, immediate cyber-social interaction, it’s your job as a parent to worry about what they watch and consume. Tell them you understand being a kid is hard and that you want to know when something’s wrong, keeping the lines of communication open.

So, when something is really, really wrong, it won’t seem quite so monumental and can be addressed sooner than later. If you combine these approaches with the  ol’ firm, fair and consistent rule of parenting, you will be on your way to raising healthy, happy children able to balance life in the ever-changing digital age.  

 Vance W. Norsworthy, probation/truancy officer for Walla Walla County Department of Court Services, can be reached at vnorsworthy@co.walla-walla.wa.us

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