As a mom of three, researcher and psychiatrist with a specialty in youth addictions. I’ve spent the last 20 years poring over the research on health, happiness, and motivation in children, especially teens. In the last decade I’ve added to that focus, the impact of screens on the developing mind. I can assure you that, on the one hand, the science couldn’t be clearer. Rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, and loneliness have skyrocketed in the last decade, almost perfectly tracking the smartphone’s rise. Given the sharp declines in youth mental health, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now calling for universal mental health screening at the age of 12.
Brain development suddenly accelerates during adolescence—at precisely the same time that screen immersion does. At that point, the brain’s “control centre,” hasn’t fully matured. It’s the part of the brain that asks us, Is this really a good idea? What are the long-term consequences? Meanwhile, young brains are wired and rewarded for risk taking, novelty seeking, peer admiration, and social connection. This intense developmental period of reward for risk, novelty, and admiration, combined with undeveloped neurologic programs for long-term planning and appreciation of consequences, can make for a recipe of confusion, hardship, and even devastation. In addition, the dizzying pace of new apps, platforms, and devices coming onto the market makes it difficult, if not impossible, to provide our teens with timely advice.
Part of our job as parents and educators is to prepare our kids for the world they’re about to enter. To set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits, for example, we monitor their diets and help them understand the difference between good and bad foods. It’s time to begin doing the same thing with tech—that is, start young, and help kids understand the link between the tech they’re consuming and how they think, feel, and behave. We need to teach them that brain-boosting tech, just like brain-boosting foods, will lead to greater health and happiness. That toxic tech, including certain video games and social media platforms, can make them feel sad and anxious. And that a little bit of sugary junk tech, whether it’s a video game or a silly TV show, won’t hurt. However, just like sugar, too much will hurt.
Here, from The Tech Solution, is a visual of what a healthy tech diet can look like.
Now that we know where we need to get to, how do we get there? Well, it’s not by being a permissive “Jellyfish” parent with no limits, boundaries, or monitoring. It also not by being an authoritarian “Shark”, controlling, hovering and imposing. The only method that works is authoritative and collaborative “Dolphin Parenting.”
Dolphin parenting is about guiding rather than directing and encouraging rather than instructing. Dolphin parents teach their children by modelling good behaviour. My favourite example of this style is drawn from nature. When a dolphin calf is born its mother gently nudges her calf along to the surface of the ocean, where it can take its first breath. Rather than lifting her young to the surface, she models swimming for it. For the first several months the dolphin mom guides, models, and instructs when needed, all while staying close to her calf, rarely leaving its side. This present, guiding, “firm yet flexible” style is the core feature of authoritative parenting.
Dolphin parenting is even more effective because it also emphasizes the importance of a balanced lifestyle, focusing on the P.O.D. –Play/exploration, Others/social bonding, and Downtime/self-care. This is why I consider the terms dolphin parenting, balanced parenting, and intuitive parenting to be interchangeable. The goals are the same: nurturing curious, confident, connected, adaptable, and resilient kids through a balanced lifestyle and the dolphin parenting behaviours of bonding, role modelling, and guiding.
There is no doubt the world has changed and our children’s future is both exciting and un-predictable. In our fast-paced, ever-changing, globally connected, and ultra-competitive world; the “future-ready” skills are resilience, collaboration, and innovation. If we guide our children to remember their daily dose of play, others, and downtime and consume a healthy tech diet, they are well on their way!