Last week, I suggested ways to source screen-vitamins for junior school children in the form of apps that are both fun and stealth-like in their delivery of education. I am a believer that we must embrace today’s technology whilst being aware of the pitfalls. As soon as our children get their hands on these devices, we should encourage good quality screen time and good habits and the best way to achieve this is by embracing our role as parents and digital mentors.
But, it’s hard not to worry about screen time as it’s almost impossible to have a week go by without any negative mention of the way children interact with technology in the news, whether it be the dangers of new online games, the negative effects of social-media on self-esteem or the wasted hours spent scrolling and swiping and the resulting lack in concentration.
This is compounded when we hear that many parents who work in the tech world are limiting and sometimes even banning the amount of screen time their children have. They know first hand just how much time and effort goes into making digital technology irresistible. It’s well known that Steve Jobs and his wife limited the technology available to their children at home and Bill Gates and his wife didn't allow their children to own a mobile phone until they were 14.
Tristan Harris, described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, former Google designer and ethicist, sums it up: “when you wake up in the morning, you have certain goals for your life and for your kids. But when you open YouTube, It doesn’t know any of those goals. It has one goal: to make you forget your goals and to keep you watching as many YouTube videos as possible.”
Harris believes that better design is key to tackling our tech addiction. But while we wait for the designers to come up with anti-addiction prototypes, I suggest some gems of wisdom to help you make sense of your child’s screen time:.
- BE A TEAMMATE RATHER THAN A DICTATOR
Dr Alicia Blum-Ross, visiting fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, has carried out extensive research in parenting for a digital future. In the struggle to strike the right balance with technology in our homes, she suggests we should work out ways to say yes rather than to say no. Do you really want to chase your child away with your terrifyingly strict rules? Studies have shown that children who’ve been actively mentored by their parents actually have healthier relationships with technology than those who’ve been set free in the wilds of the internet, or conversely, had their online access tightly limited.
APPS TO LIMIT SCREENTIME
Recently I tried Qustodio, parental control software that claims to be the easiest way to supervise your kids online. I was ready to embrace the technology and was keen on the safe and productive digital environment it promised. I wasn’t ready for it’s rigour! This is hard core stuff: if you need to control screen time, adult content and games, and want to monitor everything your child does online then this is definitely for you … if your child will allow it! For me and my daughter, this was too extreme. She is not addicted to her phone and the whole thing backfired when the phone was locked one morning as we left the house for school. It would remain locked according to the restrictions I had installed, and like Cinderella’s outfit at the ball, the Qustodio spell would not be broken until midnight. This is perfect for helicopter parent: you can run your own Mi5 style operation and monitor everything. But if you don’t think this is for you, fear not; there are other apps out there.
My favourite app at the moment is Apple’s built in Screen Time app which allows you to set limits (for yourself too) on an Apple phone, and set hours when the phone will be locked - perfect at bedtime. It is very easy to use and will always allow your child to use certain apps if you want them to, for example maps and the phone. - after all, that’s what it’s for isn’t it?!
My friend Nancy, who is a font of all wisdom, introduced me to the idea of a charging dock just as my daughter entered senior school and had her first smartphone. We have two charging stations at home - one in the hallway, and one upstairs on the landing. The idea is that when you come in from school, the phone can be charged up and out of the way of homework/supper etc. It can be looked at after supper before leaving it to charge again at bedtime.
To get around the excuse that a smart phone offers the best alarm clock - I confess I was guilty of this - I am now the proud owner of a small Casio “Wake-up Timer” and a Trevi Retro Bedside Alarm.
You might remember an ingenious device from a few years ago: the Dolmio Pepper Hacker. The pepper mill sits on the table at meal times and at the push of a button, it blocks WiFi signals, allowing a family to eat together without the constant temptation and distraction of a phone.
On investigation, I discovered the pepper mill is not available to buy yet but I did enjoy this film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN04OO67_do&feature=youtu.be
Instead, just have some rules. No phones at mealtimes. Surely this one is easy enough to implement but parents, you MUST set a good example. If this is hard for you, try one of the apps that rewards you for not using your phone like Forest which allows you to contribute to planting a real tree while your phone is locked, or Hold.
EMBRACE THE APPS AND THE GAMES TO UNDERSTAND THEM
It's hard to set rules for your child if you don’t engage and understand what they are doing online. Be interested in what they do - look at Instagram and Snapchat, and try to understand how they work. Watch them play Fortnite if they are obsessed. The point of this gem of wisdom: if you know what’s happening online then you’ll know what you are talking about when you discuss screen time with them, as well as what they’ll be missing if they reduce their screen time.
Be warned: if you decide to 'friend' your child on Facebook or Instagram, some children react by creating aliases and effectively go into their own version of the dark web (only joking) where they can’t be found by prying parents.
DIY - SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
It is important that in trying to set screen time limits for your child, you set yourself limits too. Try to put your phone down when they are at home. Show them you are also trying to limit screen time and that you are aware of the power of the handheld device to devour your interactive time with the family. Teach them ways to fill their free time with activities: exercise, cooking, reading, watching the news, museum visits(!), shopping and so on…
ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO CREATE RATHER THAN CONSUME
This is the future for the next generation. Have you ever asked your child to set up some technology at home? Or install an app on your phone? They are usually mini-experts and any creative activity they engage in on their devices might be beneficial to them in the long run.
My daughter makes hilarious stop motion movies and lip-sync music videos using her phone, and my son transforms snapshots into photographic masterpieces using various photo editing apps. So let them find a creative avenue if it floats their boat; far better to spend time creating than sitting and mindlessly swiping and scrolling.
If I leave you hungry for yet more information, you might be interested in these websites and blogs:
A Final Thought
Should we be worrying? Last week I was speaking to a spritely 80 year old neighbour who remembered with a laugh that when she was a child she was often told to get her “nose out of that book and to go out to play!” She also mentioned that 40 or so years later, she heard parents telling their children, “Come away from that television and go out and play!” And now, she hears parents telling their children to, “Put down that screen and go out and play!” It seems you can’t win .. and perhaps the dangers of the new will always be terrifying for each generation. But please don’t stick your head in the sand: rise to the screen time challenge and try to strike a happy medium in your home.
Next week, gems of wisdom from other mothers: stories and quotations they have used to inspire their children.
Until then, kwaheri!