Raising a Digital Generation
We already established in an earlier blog that parenting is tricky business at times. With the advent of so much technology at our fingertips and in our homes, it can feel like it’s got a whole lot more confusing. For most of us who are parents now, our own parents never had to contend with issues such as screen time, what age you get your first smart phone at, cyber bullying or sexting. It’s almost enough to make you want to go back to the “old days“, almost.
So lets start with a straightforward question to get us started (is there a button for sarcasm like there is for italics?)
How long do you allow a child to have screen time?
I think one of the most common responses you might get from a Psychologist when you ask them a question is “well it depends“, and in to answer the above question I’m not going to disappoint because yes it does depend.
Today’s generation, whether we approve or like it or not are Digital Natives. What that means is that they are growing up surrounded by more technology that we ever considered was possible in our youth. I grew up in 3 channel land and this was dependent on making sure that the ariel on the roof of the house was pointed in the right direction and the weather wasn’t too bad (a tall order in Ireland at the best of times). Now we have 370 channels on Sky (and still nothing on), Netflix, surface pros / ipads instead of school books and interactive and web enabled classroom boards. So given that there is an inescapable reality that our kids will be exposed to and interacting with various types of technology there is an onus on us as parents to try to understand as much as we can about it to educate and support our kids as we do in other aspects of life.
So far, there is no reliable, evidence based guidelines that can say with certainty what is a safe or healthy amount of screen time for kids. What type of screen? What type of content? It’s far too broad a concept to have guidelines that cover all ages and scenarios. So what factors should you consider?
What do we want them to do first?
Access to technology can and should be a privilege not an automatic entitlement. Let’s be real about this though, we know in part due to the pressure that parents are under that it is tempting (sometimes out of necessity while making lunches, dinners, packing school bags, putting out the washing) to stick them in front of a screen for 10 minutes so we can get something done. If we can it’s best not to fall back on this too many times or if we really need to we need to put in some expectations first with clear boundaries.
Ok you can have 15 minutes on the TV / Ipad once you’ve finished your homework first, played outside for 30 minutes, once you’ve eaten your dinner, tidied up your toys. If you don’t keep your end of the bargain you don’t get the reward. This establishes at an early age that we’re in charge of the technology, both in terms of time and content. If we establish this principle at a young age it makes it (theoretically) somewhat easier to maintain that control as our kids get older.
As with other aspects of parenting, we give varying levels of responsibility based on the age of our kids and for the most part we have a good gut sense as parents what’s appropriate. We know that our 2 year old signing along to Nursery Rhymes or Teletubbies is positive content, it’s educational and fun (and even more so if we sing along with them vs leaving them on their own). If one of the older kids then switched over to Power Rangers we’d know that wasn’t really appropriate for a 2 year old (loud noises, flashing lights & scary looking monsters) and we’d try find something they might all enjoy that is age appropriate. We know that what a teenager might be looking at on Instagram won’t be appropriate for our 8 year old’s to be perusing and we’d say no. We say no to lots of things with kids based on their age, saying no about time or content on technology should be no different to any other activity.
Content – Educational or Fun (or both)
If our kids want to play outside we generally don’t say yes and let them off for a wander, wherever they might want to go. We set limits on where they go, how far, keep an eye out every now and again to make sure we can see them, what they’re doing and who they’re with. It should be no different when our kids engage with technology. What are you going to be watching, is it age appropriate (NB we decide that not the kids, how do we decide? By watching it). Can we use technology to supplement learning from school and have fun at the same time? Absolutely. My kids learned phonics, singing and actions from Jolly Phonics on Youtube and Nursery Rhymes and animal sounds from Little Baby Bum that supplemented, not replaced what they were learning in creche and school.
How can I be sure there was no inappropriate content in the either of the above? I watched it with them, I sang the songs (badly) and did the actions (again badly) with them. Handing a child a football and telling them to go out for a kick about on their own will never be as good as a parent going out for a kick about with them. Technology is similar. When our kids are accessing it we need to do it with them and resist the temptation when we can to use it as a digital babysitter.
Where is the screen time happening?
In the vast majority of cases screen time should only occur in communal / family areas and not in their bedrooms. That way you get to keep an eye and listening ear on what they’re engaging with, popping in and out in unscheduled ways. Keeping it out of the bedroom also means that there’s less likely to be a row before bed about trying to get it back before sleep time.
Did they stick to the limit the last time?
We need to establish the time limit before a child gets access to screen time or technology. Most important of all, we need to make sure that we stick to it. Use the timer on our phones, the clock on the oven or even Alexa. Once that timer goes, try not to ever give in to re-negotiation “Please Daddy just 5 more minutes, it’s nearly over, just one more game“.
If you’ve been clear from the start that there’s a limit then stick to the limit, if it’s non-negotiable then don’t negotiate! All kids, they best of kids will try and negotiate and push the limit or the boundary, it’s what kids do. If we negotiate with them about the length of boundaries on screen time then what we’re communicating to the kids (indirectly) that their views are at least equal than ours (which makes sense, if their views weren’t at least equal to ours then why are we negotiating with them at all?)
If you get a lot of resistance, maybe inappropriate reactions or even downright refusal to come off when they’re supposed to then we need to use appropriate consequences. The key thing here is giving out to them is neither a meaningful nor an effective consequence. It’s also really important to make the consequence firm but fair and to resist the temptation to use the “big stick” approach – “ok you wouldn’t get off the Playstation for 10 minutes after we agreed / I told you to so it’s gone for the week“. All that will likely provoke is an even bigger reaction from the child and now we’re not only trying to deal with the fact that they hadn’t got off the Playstation in time but now we’ve added on difficult or inappropriate emotional / behaviour to the menu. The simple and fair solution to this issue is whatever time they’ve gone over tonight, we take that away from the next time they get access to it.
With teenagers and their phones, the majority are going to be on credit based plans, that we pay for (key point). Should we ask them to hand up their phones at night when it’s bed time? Again, absolutely! And again, we shouldn’t expect them to be happy about it, just to comply. Set this expectation up from the beginning whenever they get access to a phone / pad, that way you’re less likely to get such a big protest than if you try and implement this boundary later if the use becomes problematic.
Don’t get into a big argument about handing up the phone, it won’t be helpful to either of you. Ask calmly and if met with outright refusal calmly explain that when the credit runs out (it will eventually) that you won’t top up their credit for 1 day since they refused to hand it over that night. If it happens the second night then the creditless time extends to 2 days, etc etc. For this to work you also have to make sure you take control of the wifi at night (you pay for this too), either change the password or simply plug it out.
BUT IT’S NOT FAIR
We all know the principle of “do what I say not what I do“, and there’s nothing more guaranteed to infuriate and alienate a young person than being told to limit their phone use / hand it up / not use it at the dinner table when Mam / Dad are stuck into their own phones. If we want our kids to use technology then we need to teach them how to, by role modelling it. This was brought home to me by one of my own kids when I reminded them that there should be no playing with toys during dinner and the response I got was “well how come you can use your phone at dinner Daddy?), Fair question and argument and not one I could give a fair counter argument to.
If we have rules for technology use for the family then ideally they should apply to all of the family, including us!
Technology is here to stay, for better and/or worse in all of our lives so we need to talk about it’s use as a family, we need to decide on rules for it’s use safely, we need to have conversations and educate ourselves and our kids about it. Technology and social media has evolved and continues to evolve at a rapid pace and while it can be hard to keep pace with developments, it’s our responsibility as parents to do our best (good enough) to keep up. I’m not sure we really have much choice.