Way back in 2010, Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google said: “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data.”
Nine more years have passed since then. Technology has developed much further and we now have the first generation of adults who don’t know what it is to exist without a computer or smartphone.
And now there is a new generation emerging. People who think that touch screens and free video calls to the other side of the planet are the absolute norm. Our kids are growing up in a world of high-end technology and social media. Each day there are new achievements in all aspects of our life: we talk about long life expectancy, biohacking, artificial intelligence and world digitalisation. It is happening all around us and, of course, our kids are drawn to this world of gadgets and new technology. We, as parents, have to make daily decisions on whether or not we allow screen and gadget time, and for how long and to what content.
It seems to me that the answer is ultimately all about balance. The same balance that permits two sweets but not the whole pack, or two glasses of wine but not the whole bottle. The same ought to be applicable to gadgets. It would be strange - and unfair - in this day and age to completely prohibit access to tablets and smartphones. But to allow children access to the digital world without any control is not sensible, and could well be dangerous.
So how do we achieve this balance? When should you get a smartphone for your child and how many hours per week can she watch YouTube or play video games? Each family has its own rules, and pediatricians and scientists still can’t agree on a solution that keeps everyone happy. Nevertheless, I suggest a few common ground rules that might be useful:
As always, start with yourself. Look realistically at how much time adults in your family spend on gadgets. If mum spends hours on her smartphone or tablet then she will find it hard to explain to her child why he can’t do exactly that. If it is work related, then explain that to your children. Show them what you are doing on the phone; show the results of your work and remind them that even though Google is a good source of information not all of it is verified and true.
Give them limited choices: let kids know that they have x-amount of free minutes (or even an hour or two) after dinner and homework and it is up to them what to do with that time. They could choose whether to watch a cartoon or to play a video game. And during the weekend they can earn twice as much time if they successfully complete certain chores. Again it is then up to them how to use that time. And if necessary they can ask for additional time and you can always discuss whether that is sensible and on what terms. This generates a sense of understanding of the constraints of time in children and of how to make decisions to best utilize that time for themselves. Also it is worth having clear family rules on the blackout-times when no gadgets may be used. Perhaps on school days before school and during meal times, for example. Explain why those rules are implemented: “in our house we don’t watch tv or play electronic games before school as it distorts attention and makes it harder to concentrate. During meals we eat and talk and don’t stare at our screens”.... although... we all have those late evening restaurant meals when the iPad could be just the saviour…
Try to be informed about the computer programs, YouTube videos and games that are of interest to your children (child psychologists suggest that no violent games should be played by children up until at least 13 years old). Discuss with your kids the cartoons and movies that they watch, ask what exactly they like or don’t like in them, let them know that you are involved and engaged in conversationTry and watch tv together from time to time to stay up-to-date with their viewing preferences and also to get them interested in programmes and series of your choice. If you watch tv channels together, then it might be useful to discuss advertisements. Why it is shown to us? What does advertising exist? Explain how we should filter and understand that it is trying to play with our sub-consciousness and make us want that purple plastic train on the yellow magnetic railroad that in reality we really don’t need.
Bedroom is for sleeping. If it works for the family, bedroom should be a gadget free zone. No TV, no tablet, no smartphone and no chargers for the above. Kids shouldn’t have a habit of going to sleep with a smart phone.
Trust but check. It is way too easy these days to browse something “mature” or to stumble across something not age-appropriate online. Make sure content filters are set on each device so that only age-appropriate material can be accessed by your children. There are also many control apps that can be installed to check how much time your child has spent on the computer, like “moment” for example ( https://inthemoment.io/) or to check the activity history online like www.mspy.com. These can be installed on phone, tablet or computer. I am always in favour of a transparent relationship so I would openly discuss such apps with children.
And finally, until maturity we are responsible for our children. Gadget dependency can develop quite quickly so it is important to notice first “red flags”:
The child spends more than 2.5-3 hours per day with gadgets;
The child fights and protests when you are trying to limit access to gadgets;
Any suggestions to do something else are met passively or aggressively. The child is only happy when he gets access to his smart phone, tablet or computer...
Allowing children access to the digital world without any control is not sensible, and could well be dangerous.
If any of those signs are present in your child maybe it is now time for “digital detox”. Lose the tablet charger, lock and change the password on the smartphone and hide the tv remote. Come up with a hike, adventure or road trip to show your child the beauty of the real world compared to the digital one. And when things are back to normal you can re-introduce gadgets back, but this time with clear mutually accepted rules.
Good luck... and may the force be with you!