Tune Out Technoference

Photograph: Klas Strom

Letting a screen be your digital nanny over the summer is understandably tempting (peace and quiet, anyone?) but there are more rewarding and beneficial ways to spend the holidays, says Elaine Halligan of Parent Practice 

When the summer holidays begin, you may be delirious with excitement about the thought of no nagging about homework, longer days to play in the garden, no more morning mayhem, or being a slave to the clock and getting to school on time.

However, you may then start to worry about your children spending too long on screens and using them as a digital babysitter. You may fear they will start to develop a type of obsessive compulsive disorder and an addiction to technology. According to new research, four per cent of teens are now classed as being at risk of internet addiction, which is four times the number of people with an addiction to alcohol. You may have read that Steve Jobs would not allow his children to use an iPad, 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. Compare this recreational screen time consumption with consumption of sugar or fat or exposure to the sun, about which most of us are understandably cautious. Most of us are acutely and uncomfortably aware of this issue but may not know what to do about it.

Does the problem lie with our children? Have you ever stopped recently to look up from your own device in the local playground or park, or at the poolside when your kids are having swimming lessons and witnessed the number of adults around you absorbed in their mobile phones?

This new phenomenon, dubbed ‘technoference’, impacts hugely on child-adult relationships and, in turn, children’s behaviour. A screen-free, or at least minimal-screen summer needs to be not just for the children, but (gulp) for the adults too. We need to be really alert to the fact that what children see, children do.

The iPad indeed offers instant occupation and the reality is that thinking of and actioning other things to do requires more input and time from us. But think of it as an investment and try to encourage the following this summer.

Parents often inadvertently stifle children’s creativity through lack of time, a desire for tidiness and peace, and a sense of control. But children need to be able to experiment and express themselves, so keep pens, paper and other craft material handy – and train them to tidy up afterwards. Why not create a Boredom Busters Chart with loads of ideas, from building dens to blowing bubbles to frying an egg on the burning-hot concrete! Our family once cooked an entire meal using the engine of our car and tin foil.

Children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, including moderate and vigorous activity as well as bone and muscle-strengthening exercise. Yet only 38 per cent of girls, and 63 per cent of boys at the age of seven are getting near this level. And the level drops further as they get older. Check out local sports clubs, activity camps, weekly park runs for adults and kids to do together, and make exercise part of the family routine by just ditching the car and walking to the shops.

Teaching children to contribute at home not only gives them valuable life skills, it also makes them feel an important and valued part of the family. Give children responsibilities that are age-appropriate and acknowledge them for the part they play in making the family run well. Many littlies love helping with the vacuuming, washing the car, cooking, gardening or walking the dog. Break tasks down into small steps, and make it interesting. Point out the progress they make, and the qualities they are showing, such as perseverance, working hard, solution-seeking and so on.

Children need time and space to play so they can discover more about themselves and the world they live in, and also develop essential skills. Why not play with them sometimes? The classic board games still sell in millions. UNO takes little time to play and yet provides huge entertainment. These games teach our children how to share, how to win and how to lose. My daughter loved to play Monopoly but it was very time-consuming, so it was great to discover Monopoly Express.

It may be that a totally screen-free summer is unrealistic for you, so maybe you could consider a Digital Detox over a weekend as a start and experience the bliss of a world without any technoference. No more pinging messages distracting us every few minutes and mobiles surgically attached to the hip. How good does that sound?

Elaine Halligan is Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation delivering practical solutions to enable parents to bring out the best in their children. theparentpractice.com