We at GCP have been thinking a lot about the impact of technology on child rearing. Tablets, phones and computer screens can enhance children’s development, increase their school readiness, and introduce them to ideas and places to which they might not otherwise have any access. But they also can be distracting, overwhelming, and can interfere with or even impair their social and psychological development.

What is clear is that these devices are not going away. What is not so clear is how we parents can and should manage our sons (and daughters) use of them. This was the subject of “Touchscreen Generation: How Technology Affects Our Kids’ Social/Emotional Learning and What We Can Do About It”, a recent discussion hosted by Common Sense Media. This panel discussion featured Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, Yahoo News anchor Katie Couric, and Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. Here are some of their observations:

The current generation that is growing up with these devices and communicating regularly through texts and social media tend to believe “I share, therefore I am”–consistently sharing a running stream of their pictures, thoughts, jokes, messages is how they tell the world (which includes their friends) who they are. This reduces their ability to get any of the social benefits of solitude or live conversation.

According to Dr. Turkle, this is hampering their social and emotional development. Recent research has revealed that there has been a 40% decline among college students on the ability to show empathy during a period which coincides with the increased use of mobile devices among this age group. How do we learn empathy? Psychologists believe that empathy is learned in great part by visually experiencing what other people are saying, reading people’s body language, things that one need not do if you are only communicating by the written word.

Decreased empathy can explain an increase in bullying. It is easier to tear someone down on line if you are not focused on how they might feel when they read the mean comment. Less empathy means it is easier to shirk responsibility for hurting someone’s feelings.

As noted above, these devices are not going anywhere, and banning them from your household (if that is your inclination) is usually an unrealistic and unsustainable solution. So how can we parents manage our children’s usage so that they can reap more of the benefits and avoid more of the pitfalls?

The panelists had a few suggestions for parents:

Look in the mirror. Acknowledge how you interact with your devices. Are you tethered to your phone? Are your conversations with your son frequently interrupted by glances at your emails, responses to texts or answering cell calls? Hard for your son to listen to you tell him to leave his devices alone when you are unable to do so.

Establish device free “sacred spaces”. The dinner table, or anywhere food is eaten is a good place to start. Family dinners are great opportunities for good conversations; so much less so if everyone is staring at their devices throughout the meal.

Encourage your son to unplug and space out from time to time. Per Sherry Turkle, spacing out is good for the brain. When you step away from all the devices you can hear yourself think. (This is why good ideas come in the shower.) So resist the urge to immediately fuss at your son if you find him sitting at his desk staring into space.

Dealing with new technology and managing our sons’ device usage can make us feel vulnerable and unsure of ourselves. But we owe it to them to stay diligent and focused on how and how often they use their phones and other devices. We can’t stick our heads in the sand on this issue!