As a person who creates a great deal of parenting content via videos, articles, online courses and podcasts, I am both a part of the problem of this digital world we live in and — I’d like to believe — part of the solution.
Technology can be beneficial and harmful. The tricky thing for today’s parents is how to protect their children and themselves from the harmful aspects, while engaging in technology to enhance communication, education, positive entertainment and the strengthening of human relationships.
Kristy Goodwin, a children’s technology and development expert and author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, uses the analogy that parents need to be the “pilots of the digital plane”, rather than the passengers.
Dr Goodwin explains that this involves us being the ones who steer our children in the right direction with technology — and that they come to us for guidance when things go off course as they inevitably will.
While it is common sense that we need to help our children to make good decisions when using technology, many of us struggle to keep up ourselves.
Quite often our kids, especially tweens and teens, are much better at navigating the tech landscape than we are.
Even though there is doom and gloom about the perils of social media, gaming and smartphones — there is also a theory that these things can meet many of our kids’ psychological needs. No wonder parents get confused.
Children observe your online behaviours
Children need strong, loving, caring and safe grown-ups at every stage of life. In the early years this is built by face-to-face interaction, skin-to-skin connection, being able to attune to our children’s needs and endless hours of human communication.
I have long been concerned about digital abandonment of today’s children, as many parents struggle with over use of their smartphones.
As an example, think of breastfeeding mothers who may find themselves scrolling through their phones while feeding, rather than watching and connecting with their babies.
I am not judging any woman who does this. For some mums this can be the only time they have to catch up on what’s happening in the world, look up information about their baby and connect with others.
A smartphone can be a lifesaver when you have a new baby or young family. It can help an at-home parent stay in touch with people they love: it can also let them quickly access things to improve their mood or put worries at ease.
But it’s worth being aware that this is a time when new habits are forming, including how you use your phone around your children.
A phone can be a very useful tool
As your children move into primary school your phone can be a useful organisational tool, which is incredibly helpful (I know I’d be lost without my online calendar).
Maybe if smartphones were around when my boys were young, I wouldn’t have left one of my sons at the pool. I also now remember so many more birthdays than I did before Facebook turned up in my life. We need to recognise that our smart phones can help us organise all sorts of important things.
But if you want your children to understand the value of a device as an organisational tool, and not just something to play games on, then tell them what’s going on. This gives them the message that you can use your phone in necessary, positive and helpful ways.
Importantly, we need to remember that many of the things that are important in childhood (and life) involve putting our phones down and being present with those around us.
Handheld devices vs watching TV
As for our kids using screens, let’s be honest, there are times we need space to get washing sorted, cook dinner, chat to a friend who’s struggling, work or simply have quiet time.
This is where I believe we need to differentiate between handheld devices and small screens, and TV. I much prefer younger children to be watching quality children’s productions than scrolling through YouTube.
Handheld devices often see us in a fixed posture and negate movement of the body and eyes (whereas kids can somersault from the couch while watching TV).
As our kids get older I think our biggest responsibility is to teach them to be critically literate when using technology.
Firstly, every phone and device in the family — and every smart TV — needs a good quality external parental control. This should be the minimum safety requirement of everyone flying the digital plane.
Also, the later a child gets a smartphone the better. There is a reason why most apps have a minimum age limit of 13 years.
Regularly updating your apps can be helpful, as updates often iron out safety issues that may have come up.
Most importantly, we need to start talking to children early in life about dangers they can stumble across while online. It’s a good chance to remind they can always come to us if they have problems. We also need to stay engaged with them about what they’re doing online.
It’s worth having age-appropriate conversations about inappropriate images and pornography, and be clear and specific about what they are and how porn is very different from real sex and respectful relationships.
Dr Goodwin also makes the point that we shouldn’t use screens as a punishment tool because then our children will be less likely to come to us if they do see something inappropriate in case you confiscate their device.
Finally, have clear family guidelines around age-appropriate videos and films, and ensure your children know why, and that their friends also know the rules too.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s website as they are a fantastic resource for parents, and offer support for when things do go wrong (such as when your child is being cyberbullied).
The age of online distraction
Research suggests that the mere presence of our phones is distracting and reduces our enjoyment of the experience of human interaction.
High-level learning needs focused thinking and time to problem-solve, and distractibility is a very real problem we struggle with when we’re tired.
In a young child’s developing brain or a brain that’s getting massively pruned, reshaped and rebuilt in adolescence, it is a real concern and something we need to be mindful of.
What children really need
As humans we have a fundamental need for connection. So when technology is used to enhance and connect people in positive ways it can be a force for good.
But we must keep this in balance — the digital world and the real world.
Human communication that happens away from the screen can only be mastered with practise. Learning to understand the nuances of conversation, the gestures of human interaction, the importance of eye contact and the power of a hug.
And nothing will ever replace the importance of outdoor play — it’s the most healthy way to enhance children’s growth on all levels.
They need lots of physical movement. They need fresh air. They need sunlight. They need to have opportunities to test themselves and stretch and grow. They need to fall and fail and learn to get back up again. They need to immerse all their senses in the real world as often as possible in childhood to become balanced healthy grown-ups one day.
And our kids need us, possibly more than ever, to be present in the little moments — the good, the bad and the ugly. They need us to stop spending so much time filming, sharing or photographing their important moments and just be there for them.
They want to see their parents’ eyes when they conquer that monkey bar or jump into that puddle. Not only do they need us to be competent digital pilots — they need us to be loving, present parents.
(Courtesy: Maggie Dent of ABC Life)