More and more I am talking with friends and family about how technology is everywhere and touching everything we do. No matter where we are, there always seems to be an opportunity (or an excuse!) to look at a screen. We use technology for work, rest and play.
It is only natural for parents to be concerned that their children – given they are surrounded by technology from a young age – will grow up with their eyes permanently glued to the screen. Parents will inevitably ask, ‘How much screen-time is too much?’
I know this is topical for parents who are trying to find that balance for their family. I have often caught myself and had to resist the urge to grab the smartphone at the dinner table. We are all guilty of letting technology sneak into our routines.
So what can be done? How do we manage access to technology without over-reacting and become draconian with our rules?
As a starting point, we need to remember that when it comes to use of technology, we should be in control. That is, we control the technology, the technology doesn’t control us.
Easier said than done though – that control does require some forethought and it requires some effort.
So, here are my top 5 technology tips for parents:
1. Educate ourselves!
As parents, the buck stops with us. We are responsible so we need to know what we are dealing with. Fortunately, there are a lot of online tools and resources available to help parents manage technology.
When it comes to video games, I work with the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA), who provide a variety of resources to help parents understand and manage how our kids engage with video games. There is some good information on their website “Take Control…” with yours truly, walking through the ways you can set up parental controls for consoles.
Another interesting group that has been active in promoting healthy habits for children and technology is the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre. Its website has some great research and insights across a range of different technologies, from social media to video games and mobile phones. You can visit the website here.
According to the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, the amount of time that the average Australians spend online each day is 2.5 hours.
This surprised me. Considering how often we need to be online to complete work and school tasks (let alone socialising or just being entertained), this doesn’t seem excessive.
When making household rules, parents need to remember that a lot of activities which were not previously done in front of a screen – such as reading a book or learning new words – have now become digitised. So while any guidelines are great to keep in mind, we need to be conscious of implementing restrictions so we cater for the specific needs and habits of our own families.
2. Find out what kind of screen time our kids are engaging in
It is one thing to compare our kids using screens for homework, but it is another matter entirely when we discuss how our children use screens for social interaction and entertainment.
The Queensland University of Technology did an interesting study last year looking at how Australians are using screens and found a distinct difference between active screen-time versus passive screen-time.
Those engaging in active screen-time activities – such as playing video games or interacting online through social media – were found to benefit in a range of different ways, compared with those who engaged in passive screen-time activities like watching DVD’s and television.
The research showed that engaging in active screen-time boosted children’s “self-esteem, cognitive skills such as problem-solving and, in some cases, physical activity levels.”
I would highly recommend looking at the QUT research here.
3. Get the most out of screen time
Our kids are going to be engaging with technology more and more throughout their lives. Simply trying to cut them off from technology is not really an option – and in fact could do more harm than good. So I recommend finding ways to weave technology into family life in a positive way.
A lot of the parents I speak to want to change their children’s habit for spending too much time online or playing video games.
However, before a strict regimented schedule limiting everyone to just five minutes a day is imposed, I’d first ask parents to investigate the kind of technology our children are interacting with. Are they educational games which teach toddlers new sounds and words? Are they interactive games which teach valuable motor skills? Or are they purely for entertainment? Are they active or passive interactions?
Each one of these activities is valuable, but will need different amount of time dedicated to them.
We need to rethink the way we view technology and to recognise that it can be much more than simply an entertaining reward, or a welcoming distraction.
You’ll be surprised by how many educational tools that are available online, even via consoles and handheld devices and mobile platforms, and how effective and enjoyable they can be (for the whole family!).
4. Don’t shelter them from technology, help them embrace it
As in other areas of life, I’ve have tried not to completely shelter my three children from the potential dangers of being online, but instead ensuring that they understand what those dangers are and how to navigate them. As soon as my children were old enough, I made sure I spoke to them about the real risks of cyber bulling, online strangers and privacy.
It is up to us to explain how technology plays an important role in their lives, but we still need to find a balance with both online and offline activities.
5. Get involved and get active
Finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to treat the newer forms of technology, like tablets, smart phones and video games, as you would treat books, movies, sports or any other children’s past time – and that is, technology and video games are most enjoyable when you get right in there and play and use them with your children.
Of course, there’s no substitute for taking children to the playground, playing soccer at the park or wrestling with them on the lounge room floor, but it’s naive to consider technology and video games as just a distraction for children.
Children take their cues from parents and teaching children how to use technology sensibly lays a good foundation for when our young tots grow into their teenage and adult years.