Throughout the pandemic our digital devices were our metaphorical lifelines. Not only did they allow us to stay connected to our loved ones, but they allowed our children to continue their education despite the adverse circumstances. If the pandemic had happened twenty years ago, things would have been a lot different, so we have much to be grateful for when it comes to the technology rich world our children inhabit.
That said, as with so many human inventions, there’s often a downside attached to those positive benefits. Since the pandemic has abated and we’ve all got a little bit of normality back in our lives, our youngsters are often on the receiving end of some very mixed messages. Just a few months back, parents were encouraging them to spend time on their devices in order to maintain their education and also (let’s be honest) to alleviate some of the boredom of being in lockdown. Now, seeing teenagers glued to their devices has become a huge frustration for many parents because they feel it’s getting in the way of their child’s academic and social progress. So how can we empower our children to moderate the time they spend locked in a digital world? Well, I have a few tips to help worried parents teach their kids to find that healthy balance.
A little bit of introspection is important
Recent studies have shown that post pandemic, kids are spending an average of 90 minutes more a day watching a screen of some form or another. Games, YouTube, TikTok and more are all competing for our children’s time. Getting off the sofa and going outside is increasingly less enticing and parents and educators are rightly concerned that it is affecting the physical and mental well-being of a generation. Post lockdown digital dependency is a serious issue and requires us all to take it seriously. My first suggestion would be that before tackling our children’s digital well-being, we need to look to ourselves. Adults can sometimes be guilty of preaching messages to children that they don’t actually apply to their own lives. Auditing yourself first will give you a good understanding of the messages you are giving to your kids where phones and tablets are concerned. If you sit on your phone in the evening and don’t engage with family and what is going on around you then that is going to have an impact. Our kids are sponges. They soak up messages from the significant adults in their lives and copy them. So rule number one, be the person you want them to become. Set rules for yourself on screen time and be open with your children about why it’s important to have those boundaries. You are their role-model and it’s incredibly hard to justify telling them to spend less time on their devices if you don’t!
How much is too much
My next tip is to actively monitor just how much time your child is actually spending on devices each day. It sounds obvious, but it’s something that crops up time and again when I work with parents; they can’t give you a definitive answer and sometimes they are shocked when they actually find out the truth! For a couple of (average) days, keep an active tab as much as you can on how long they spend on devices. Alongside this, make a mental note of the types of behaviours they display. It may be that their use is perfectly reasonable and healthy and that’s great, but if you suspect that their use is having a negative impact, look out for a few tell-tale signs. For example, do they panic if their phone is not within touching distance? Is their ability to pay attention to things becoming increasingly limited and when they’re asked to come off devices, how do they respond? Once you understand what you’re working with, then you can formulate a plan to reset things.
That plan and your approach will certainly depend on the age of your child. If we’re being honest, the younger they are the easier it is to have greater control over what they do. Of course parental controls can be externally set, but on top of that out of sight out of mind is a good motto to live by. Devices are so much part of the fabric of our lives that it’s easy to forget they can be put away! Distraction is also a great strategy with younger kids. They’re such butterflies, so having alternatives that are engaging can make it easy to switch their attention. Cooking, board games, construction toys, outdoor activities, gardening…the list could go on and on. Make it clear when they can have screen time and for how long. When you want them to come off, give them a fifteen minute warning, so they can finish up what they are doing and then immediately jump into something new. Laying down solid foundations like this early on in their lives will have positive ramifications later down the line.
Confrontation is not the best strategy
Older kids, though, are definitely a different proposition. Being overly dictatorial with teens rarely ends well! Ideally, what we want to achieve is a gradual transition to a healthier relationship with devices. Snatching their phones and locking them away is only going to cause conflict and sneaky behaviour and doesn’t really empower them to take responsibility for themselves. Instead, open discussion about the issues and a collective family setting of boundaries is a far more productive way to move forward. The creation of a family wide media plan, which also involves rules for the adults as well as kids will ensure that rules don’t feel imposed. This could include screen-free meal times (I have to admit phones at the dinner table are one of my greatest bug-bears!), no screens an hour before bed, homework done before screen time and screen free days where each member of the family takes it in turn to choose an activity. All of these little switch-ups can help to reset the balance.
Finally, as parents we have to be pragmatic. The world our children are growing up in is very different to the one in which we spent our childhood. The same goes for every new generation. We have to accept that devices are part of our everyday lives now and it’s about how we manage ours and our children’s interaction with them that’s important. It’s about getting them to utilise the benefits in a productive way and showing them how to minimise the downsides so that their digital wellbeing is as happy as their physical and mental one. It’s about recognising that we, as parents, have a responsibility to guide them through that complex, sometimes, baffling, sometimes scary online world so that they understand how to stay safe and in control. That means parents need to arm themselves with information so that they stay on top of the issues facing their children and are thereby empowered to help them when problems arise. The virtual world has much to offer, but our kids need to know that the real world has the potential to be even more exciting.