It’s impossible to deny that technology, including personal devices such as smart phones, are more and more becoming an inevitable part of our children’s lives. The statistics are frightening for a generation of parents who are not as familiar as their children with the technology that is at times governing their lives both socially and educationally. Two examples of this are
50 % of kids have social media accounts before the age of 12
The average age for a child to own their first mobile phone is 10.
When we add to this the requirement for primary school students to perform research at home which requires use of a laptop computer and access to the internet, it becomes clear that without strong boundaries, it would be easy for children of all ages to spend 24 hours a day in front of a screen!
Technology is a fact of life for young people. This brings with it many positives including great educational apps and access to a wider range of homework help resources. These things make it easy to become blind to the dangers and believe that they will only happen in other people’s homes. In order for technology to be used to its maximum beneficial capacity, the downsides also need to be acknowledged and recognised. Often this is simply achieved by parents taking responsibility to keep their children safe, both socially and emotionally, within the tech world.
How many times in a week do we communicate directly and verbally with another person – with no emojis, text abbreviations or facebook comments? The answer for most of us is not as much as we should or we used to! The phone can quickly become a virtual wall between parents and their children and stops the flow of face to face dialogue that we all grew up needing, appreciating and benefiting from. One great way to keep these personal relationships alive in your family is to, as a family, consistently set aside “no screen times or zones.” This could be meal times, during a particular family activity or during quality 1 to 1 time between you and your child. This can help begin to create for our kids (and for us), a break from the pressure and persistent distraction of screens and a focus on the things that matter most such as family connections.
Whilst screens themselves present one set of challenges, social media and having an online presence presents a different set of sometimes more sinister concerns. The greatest concern by far is that of online safety. We have all heard the stories of cyber bullying and befriending someone inappropriate but never believe it could happen to someone we know. Before your child has an online presence ( facebook, twitter, instagram, even email) make sure you have chatted to them about internet safety and what is and is not appropriate to share. At the same time, you should ensure that any shared computers in your house have age appropriate filters. Children should be expected to share their passwords with their parents for full transparency and I encourage parents to join whichever social platforms their child is on and ‘friend them’, not to police their child but to sensitively remain aware of your child’s online behaviour . This allows you a greater chance to intervene early if anything untoward is going on and hopefully avoid it getting there as your child is aware you can see and knows what you expect from them!
One downside both of social media activity and screens is the effect it is having on young people’s sleep. The direct correlation between headaches, eye strain and sleep disturbance and excessive phone use is well documented and can be avoided by instituting an age appropriate curfew where phones are given to you to charge overnight at a set time (at least an hour before lights out). This curfew could also take the format of notifications being muted and the device being put on do not disturb mode. That allows teenagers’ to keep their alarm/ reminder/ music with them but does not require them to be on social media interacting with the blue light emitted from phones which is often the culprit of the sleep disruption.
Many kids and teens feel that they need their screens in order to relax and wind down from the day. That is often the case and this should be encouraged as early in the evening as possible. Once the curfew has been reached, it can be helpful to encourage your children and teenagers develop positive bedtime habits which will relax them and don't involve screens. These could include listening to music; reading ( an actual book); mindful colouring; taking a bubble bath or chatting with you or another family member about their day. Prior to falling asleep, it is important ( no matter how old we are) to feel as safe and secure as possible before trying to fall asleep. It is important for children to learn that this can be achieved better and more effectively without screens but it is something that parents need to teach and show by example.
Parents lead by example. From how we talk to table manners and what behaviour is ok, children look to their parents for guidance. Screens are no different. How many of us can relate to the ritual-like routine of checking our social media feeds as soon as we wake or the curiosity to glance at your phone whenever it pings with a notification? Many parents that I speak to are also happy for their children to be busy and occupied “even with screens” as it allows them to focus on other tasks or responsibilities. We need to remember that our kids, even our teens, are modelling off our behaviour and habits, and learn from a young age the place of technology at home and in life.
By setting firm boundaries, rules and expectations around screen use as well as modelling a healthy relationship with technology, parents can hope to establish in their children’s mind a clear understanding of the place for technology in their lives and how to stay healthy, safe and connected in real time and in real life with those they love and care about.