Technology and kids – the good, the bad and the ugly!

When we become parents for the first time, we tend to fret about weaning and what to do if you have a fussy eater, how to get them potty trained, how to get into good bedtime habits. The last thing on our minds is managing the internet, social media and gaming. And yet now the digital world seems to dominate our lives, as well as our children’s.

Very soon you start to worry about your children spending too long on screens and you using them as a digital babysitter. We fear they will start to develop an addiction to technology. We have all read about the fact that Steve Jobs would not allow his children to use an i-pad, and that many Silicon Valley executives are selecting schools with minimal IT resources in the classroom. The horrifying statistic is that by the age of seven, the average British child born today will have spent an entire year of their life in front of a screen. If you compare this recreational screen time consumption with consumption of sugar, salt or fat or exposure to the sun, we then become acutely and uncomfortably aware of the prevalence of technology. Often as parents we struggle to know whether technology is good or evil.

On the one side we have companies marketing technology to expectant parents who play their babies Mozart in the womb – a whole industry has arisen around the idea that if you stimulate your baby with tools like baby Einstein they will get an edge on the other toddlers! And on the other side we have the media who do a phenomenal job terrifying us with stories of teenage suicide due to cyber bullying and obsessive and excessive use of social media, gaming and chat rooms.

We then end up as parents on a digital pendulum that swings between trying to eliminate any risk totally and banning them from ever going online to suddenly realizing that time passes rather quickly when the kids are playing Fortnite and you rather like the peace and quiet.

I love technology!  I see the many benefits in my own private and work life. Gaming and social media platforms have provided life lines for those with social communication difficulties who would otherwise be socially isolated. There was a recent news report about a severely disabled boy whose family were astonished at his funeral when gamers from around the world attended. It opened their eyes to how much joy and companionship he had found online where he could be an able-bodied hero. Gaming plays a valuable function for those who often fall by the wayside in the offline world.

The digital world is a fabulous resource and we as adults use it for research, communication, online shopping, music and other entertainment. Likewise our children use it to stay in touch with their friends, share stories and photos and get support for school work as well as entertainment. Like many other aspects of our lives we need to find a balance between the online world and RL (real life). Human interaction needs to be preserved in a 21st century technology-rich world. The only edge that humans may have on AI soon will be our ability to empathise and to communicate better than robots so we need to preserve these skills!

So here are some top tips to helping you all find your way through the digital jungle

  1. THINK AHEAD. Begin with the end in mind. What is the ultimate destination? To encourage children to feel in charge of technology and use it responsibly, as opposed to technology being in charge of them.
  1. DECIDE . You need to decide WHAT they can access, WHERE they can utilise devices, WHEN they can use technology, WITH WHOM they can connect online AND HOW MUCH they should be on it.
  • How much time? Research shows that when parents set limits on media consumption, children consume less media than those who have no limits.
  • When can they play or surf or game? This depends on your family schedule but it’s advised that no screens are accessed during the hour before bedtime as screen-usage interferes with sleep.
  • What sites/ apps? Watch out for the parental guidance certificates and if you are not ready for your child to smoke or drink or drive why would we think they are ready to use Dead or Alive which is rated 16?
  • Where? Do keep internet-enabled devices in a common place where you can monitor them. And have a DROP ZONE where the devices can stay and recharge when they are not being used. We recommend no devices at mealtimes and always out of the bedroom at night. Adults too!
  1. INVOLVE. Include the children rather than imposing the rules from on high! Be interested in their views. You will have more influence when you listen to their opinions.
  1. WRITE IT DOWN. I guarantee you will forget the rules and by writing them down it depersonalises them. Then you have a contract, with both sides needing to respect and abide by it.
  1. KEEP IT POSITIVE. Don’t have ‘DON’T’ rules such as “no mobiles upstairs” or “no gaming after 7pm”. Instead use ‘DO’ rules like “mobiles are used downstairs” and “you can game after homework and before 7pm.”
  1. FOLLOW THROUGH. Often we start by thinking of what we should do when they mess up! But really we should be deciding what to do when they get it right. Adults rarely notice when children get it right. Do comment when they follow the screen rules. The positive consequence of following the rules is earning the right to use screens again.
  1. MODEL GOOD HABITS. Be aware that if your own phone is surgically attached to your hip 24/7 and you are making calls at the dinner table and taking your phone to bed, it can be hard for the children to accept your rules. You are not modelling your own values.

Elaine Halligan, Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation delivering practical solutions to enable parents to bring out the best in their children, and author of a best selling book called ‘My Child’s Different’, published by Crown House August 2018. 020 8673 3444

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