Plugged In

Words by: Elaine Halligan

Navigating your family’s way through technology, screen time and social media can feel fraught with difficulty, but we should embrace, not ignore, the digital world, says Elaine Halligan

When it comes to screen time, social media, gaming and online friendships, the media tends to catastrophise parenting in the digital age. Barely a week goes by without headlines or new research claiming that technology is damaging our children’s health and wellbeing. These headlines send many parents into a state of panic and fear, with some adopting draconian strategies to stem the tide – from completely banning social media to disabling the router so that kids can’t access the internet.

Personally, I love technology. I use it regularly for my work and pleasure. Without technology, my severely dyslexic son would have been unable to write his university dissertation, as the speech to text software is a life line for him.

As digital immigrants, we parents often fail to understand this world that our children – as digital natives – inhabit and we need to accept that the internet and screens are a vital part of children’s lives today. Opting out is not an option, unless we want to alienate them from their friendship groups and society, and preclude them from learning skills they may need in future jobs.

Our role is to teach children how to be good digital citizens. Compare it to swimming – it doesn’t matter how many fences we put around the swimming pool, if we don’t spend the time teaching our children how to swim, we will never make them safe in water. The same is true for screen safety. The more we nag, shout, blame, criticise and forbid, take away and threaten, the more children will rebel. Children do need limits and boundaries but we also need to remember that our role is to teach them self-control. Parents need to ask themselves these four key questions:

1. How much time?

There is so much conflicting advice, but the general consensus is none before two years, and from two to five years, no more than one hour a day. But it’s not really about having two hours because you’re 10 years of age; it’s about what else you need to do with your time – eat, sleep, play, school, family time and so on – before you earn your screen time. Try moving away from the idea of ‘screen time’ to ‘screen quality’. And make detox days or even weekends part of your family routine.

2. When should they use screens?

This is very much up to you and your family values and what works for you. But most families find screens in the morning are a big distraction from getting ready and don’t set the kids up well for focusing at school. Screens can be earned for doing chores or completing homework. Screens should be switched off one hour before bedtime. All the research shows that watching screens impacts on sleep hygiene.

3. Where should they have their tablets, phones, screens?

Keep internet-enabled devices where you can monitor them in a common area. Try having a drop-zone where all devices live and re-charge when they are not being used. To be effective, you’ll need to model this yourself; 80 per cent of parenting is modelling. If you are taking your phone to bed then it can be hard for the children to accept your values.

4. What sites/apps/games are OK?

Be curious and alert to ensure your children don’t access unsuitable sites or games. Most social media platforms have an age restriction of 13, and for a valid reason, as children younger than that are not mature enough to handle it. Don’t let them watch films or play games that have a rating above their age – those ratings are there to protect them. Useful sites for deciding on the appropriateness of computer games and apps are PEGI.info and commonsensemedia.org, which offer information to parents about the film, game, app or website as well as discussion points for family conversations about the content.

Once you have clarity on these essentials then create some clear, realistic rules so the children know what is expected of them:

INVOLVE THE CHILDREN. rather than imposing the rules from up high! Including them shows you are interested in their views; it is respectful to seek their opinion. Outline what your values are and what you need to happen, and acknowledge what they would like. Then ask how you can accommodate both sets of needs. They will probably have some good ideas. They may not like all the rules – empathise with that and reiterate why you need to have them.

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.

KEEP IT POSITIVE. Don’t have negative rules, such as “no mobiles upstairs” or “no gaming after 7pm”, but rather “mobiles are used downstairs” and “you can game after homework and before 7pm”.

FOLLOW THROUGH. Often we start by thinking of what we should do when they mess up, but we need to decide what to do when they get it right too. Adults rarely notice when children cooperate. Comment favourably when they follow the screen rules. The positive consequence of following the rules is earning the right to use screens again. If they don’t follow the rules they haven’t earnt that right.

Elaine Halligan is Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that helps parents bring out the best in their children. Her new book, My Child’s Different, is due to be published in autumn 2018 with Crown House. theparentpractice.com

Photography: Getty, Shutterstock

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