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How do you keep kids from becoming smartphone zombies?

KIRO Radio Morning News Anchor Colleen O'Brein learned something about technology from her 13-month old daughter recently. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The other day my 13-month-old daughter taught me something. She taught me that we’re wrong about smartphones and technology. It’s not the new way of life. It never will be. Staring at a screen all day is just not natural.

I’ve always been divided on this issue, as a child of the tech-boom, but Elliette, my daughter, set me straight.

She and I were sitting in a lounge area the other day, and to my right was a mom and her two teen kids. There was an eerie silence. Not only were the two teens engrossed in their smartphones, but mom was too.

Elliette is at a stage where she tries desperately to get a stranger’s attention and make them laugh with a silly face. It normally works, but this time it didn’t because the strangers were staring at a phone screen.

In that moment, the joy of human interaction was gone. It was stolen by Candy Crush.

I’m not offended that they didn’t pay attention to my daughter. I’m offended that a human moment was stolen. It’s the first time I’ve seen this in such an extreme way.

Like any new parent, I began to panic and racked my brain for ideas to prevent my daughter from turning into a phone zombie, no offense to that family.

Luckily, Dr. Megan Moreno at Seattle Children’s Hospital is looking into this very thing – and holding a conference on it right now.

“We hear stories in clinic of teenagers who describe going to parties and no one at the party is even talking, they’re just all in their own bubbles of looking at their phones,” says Moreno. “Sometimes they’re even texting each other, which is just a very different type of social interaction than what we’re all used to.”

The conference combines the forces of pediatricians, lawyers, teachers and leaders in the business, technology and journalism communities. Everyone’s looking at the healthiest way to use smartphones and social media.

They say parents are the first defense, and when kids start asking for a smartphone it can put parents in a tough situation.

“I think one thing we often see in clinic is that there is this feeling that parents need to get their kid a phone for safety,” says Moreno. “That is a reasonable argument, especially for some families where that child has to commute a long way. I don’t know if that’s an argument to get a smartphone.

“The other thing that we hear is that there is this feeling that you need to have this type of phone to keep up, and sort of keep up appearances.”

Many parents can relate to that feeling. And Moreno says sometimes parents that are less tech savvy than their kids hesitate to make rules about technology for their kids.

“I think that’s one thing that we try to really consistently emphasize is that parents don’t have to be technology experts. They don’t have to know Angry Birds to say, in this house at 7 p.m. all the phones go in this drawer and that is that.”

Moreno says that technology use can also help parents. Before, parents were relegated to snooping through diaries.

Now, if a parent is concerned about their child, a quick scan through a Twitter or Facebook feed could reveal what they’re struggling with.

“We’ve learned a lot about the way adolescents talk about various health behaviors on sites such as Facebook and Twitter,” says Moreno. “For example, we’ve done some studies related to alcohol displays on Twitter, and we’ve learned some ways parents can use that information to have really fruitful discussions with their teens about alcohol use as well as about privacy online.”

So looking through the eyes of a child too young to play with a smartphone can be very telling. There can be too much of a good thing. Although, my daughter, at 13 months, already knows how to unlock my iPhone.

The SMAHRT conference will be happening through Saturday if you’re interested in attending you can go to Seattle Children’s website for more information.

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