I am often asked questions by parents who are trying to make sense of the many complex and, at times, frightening content that their children are exposed to online at an ever younger age. Over the years, I have read lots of research on the pros and cons of children using the internet to access all manner of online material; from watching YouTube videos, playing games, accessing educational apps, using social media and miming to music videos, there is information out there to support or refute the values of each of these activities. So it is no wonder then, that as parents, we struggle to reach an agreement about how much or how little children should be accessing online. Quite frankly, we do not yet have the full picture as to the effect this is having on our children as ours is the first generation to be accessing the internet from birth. Research indicates that children now access online information from the age of four months. Four months! At a time when those little brains are newly engaging with the world around them, we have no idea how this will affect them in the long term. The only thing we can be sure of is that our children are being exposed to things way before we were and they are engaging with technology in a way that we could never have imagined when we were the same age. What we are yet to determine is whether this is of benefit or detriment to them.

One of the questions I am asked a lot, is how much time children should be spending online. This is an interesting question and there isn’t a straightforward answer to it. Recently, I watched a Ted Talk (Adam Alter – Why our screens make us less happy ) by a psychologist who makes a very interesting point. In years gone by, the activities we engaged in had natural stopping cues. For example, when reading a book, we naturally set cut off points by stopping at the end of a chapter. Or when watching a television programme, after a gripping episode, we would switch off the television, having to wait until the following week to see what happened next. Now all episodes are accessible online and we can watch them on a loop until 3am if we choose to! Nowadays, when we access social media, there are not the same stopping cues embedded within these online platforms, so we are spending much more time scrolling through information feeds, watching related video clips and liking our friends’ “perfect” holiday photos, completely oblivious to the passage of time.

This is the world in which our children are growing up and I believe the problem here is twofold; the content of what our children are accessing needs to be monitored, but so too does the level of disengagement from the world around them. The social implications associated with this deeply concern me. There are a multitude of studies which show that human interactions are key to producing well-balanced and mentally healthy individuals. Mental health issues occupy many headlines in the news at the moment and yet we are still struggling to get the balance right. Set aside the multitude of other reasons why human interactions are essential, if we look at the internal effect, studies show that for self- satisfaction and worth, human interactions are vital. In another TED talk, (Robert Waldinger – What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness) Robert Waldinger talks about a fascinating study, about a group of men from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum who were observed and monitored for 75 years. Of the remaining men still alive, researchers have been able to demonstrate that those who have regularly engaged in positive human interactions with loved ones, have felt most happy and fulfilled throughout their lives. Therefore it makes sense to suggest that if children are disengaging from the world around them, because they are not able to identify stopping cues, surely then they are not fully equipping themselves with the essential tools for sustaining a happy and fulfilling life.

Dr Nicole Beurkens, a child psychologist, explores the difficulties in setting boundaries and incorporating technology into our everyday lives in the most healthy way. In reality, it is not just our children who are struggling, it is us adults too. She claims we are all in this together, and we should all evaluate our use of mobile devices in order to minimise the negative impact technology is having on our lives.

Here are her top 5 tips:

1. Be aware of your own device use. Most parents are not even aware of their own device use, although they could easily tell you about their child’s usage. I am sure, like me, you have been shocked when your smart phone has popped up a helpful little summary of your phone use for the week. Surely not! Take heed and ascertain how much of that time was actually spent using your device in front of your children.

2. Model healthy device use. Once you have overcome your surprise at your device usage, try to model a healthy balance of making use of your device at certain points, but then putting it away during key moments (at the table, at the family BBQ, during family time, playing together, etc.) Make conversation and eye contact!

3. Prioritise other activities before electronics. If you want your children to do something, make sure you ask them to do it before they start using their devices. For example, simple tasks like getting themselves ready for school, doing homework, reading a book or playing outdoors. Once they have done as you have asked, they are free to spend time (which you have determined!) on their devices.

4. Spend time together doing device free activities. Try to make conversation the focus of your interactions and get to know your child through their interests. The more you chat to them, the more you’ll be enthralled with their unique character and interests! No-one ever claimed to feel they had lost out due to investing more time in their family. And please put your devices away at meal times…!

5. Don’t worry if your child gets upset about the limits that you set. Children have an inbuilt sense of how to wheedle what they want out of us! It is not because they are being manipulative, it is because they haven’t yet learned how to self-moderate. As the adults in their lives, we have to teach them how to do this and frequently (at first) this means disappointing our children. The good news is, they will get over it! Limits are imposed for a reason, and the word “no” was invented to help us to set these limits. Be strong and remember, you are doing it for their own good. Long term gains often involve a more “painful” process, but the rewards will be sweet!

By doing all of the above, even if you don’t say it out loud, you are actually subliminally telling your child you care about them. They may not feel it at the time and you may have some accusations levelled at you, but remember, we are all in this together. If we support each other through the difficult times and help each other over the hurdles, then surely, we will be helping to produce the next generation of interesting and interested individuals and what better place to be, than in their company for years to come!

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