Parenting in a digital age

There is mounting evidence of the risks facing young people who spend an ever-increasing part of their lives online. The school curriculum has been updated to include guidance on acting safely online, and the government is reviewing ways to control how much time children spend on social media platforms. But what can parents do to reduce the dangers of a digital world? Two experts offer their insights and advice.

Penny Harris, Investment Director, Rathbones

It may seem ironic that mother-of-four Rachel Vecht spends much of her time teaching parents how to handle the problems of social media and the internet through online webinars. 

But Vecht has never denied the benefits of the internet, and nor does she prevent her own children from engaging with friends through social media. She is serious, however, about the need for parents to do more to protect children from the temptations and dangers of the online world. 

Vecht was a primary school teacher for seven years. Seventeen years ago, when her first child arrived, she started working as a parent educator — teaching parenting skills to adults.

Father-of-four Dr Aric Sigman is a psychologist, biologist and award-winning author who specialises in child health education. He is a member of the all-party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood. 

Like Vecht, he is a strong advocate of the argument that good parenting can help children to journey safely through the travails of adolescence in a digital world. His big concern is how much time children spend in front of a screen.

Screen time

Vecht: Although I am reluctant to be very prescriptive to individual families, I would say that no child should be allowed to use a screen without some kind of boundaries being established. One potential solution could be to involve the children themselves in drawing up clear rules. You need some sort of agreement to cover things like how much time they can spend on screens, in what circumstances and what sites or apps they are allowed to use. Regardless of the approach, we definitely have to think very seriously about how much our children are using screens.

Sigman: The media focuses on content and activity and whether children are watching inappropriate things, but not enough is talked about the amount of time young people spend on screens, which is increasing every year. Childhood is a period of significant change in the brain’s anatomical structure and connectivity. The younger the child, the more easily the size, structure and function of their brain can be altered permanently as a direct result of their experiences. Screen habits are established early and last for decades.

The US Department of Health says children under two should be exposed to no television, videos or video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use to one hour a day for children between two and five years old. In many homes screen viewing begins in early infancy; you can even buy an iPotty — a combination of iPad and potty designed to help young children with potty training, featuring a stand that holds the iPad securely, helping provide entertainment while they are seated. Ofcom research shows that a third of pre-schoolers now own their own media device and 16-to 24-year-olds spend more time on media and communications than sleeping. This raises significant concerns over children’s cardiometabolic and psychosocial health. We are seeing the widespread emergence of screen-related addictive behaviour, which seriously compromises a child’s overall functioning. The research is unequivocal — too much screen time is unhealthy.

Screen rules

Vecht: Rules should be appropriate for a child’s personality and age and can be written down and shared with anyone else helping with childcare to reduce arguments. They should include clear rewards and consequences, as children do not like surprises. A consequence might be loss of screen time the next day. If after 20 minutes on the iPad they turn it off willingly, tell them you appreciate them keeping to your agreement — try to acknowledge what they are doing right rather than constantly telling them what they are doing wrong.

Sigman: One of the most important rules is what time at night the screen goes off. That should be non-negotiable. Children need sleep, and phones in the bedroom all night long have been linked with poor sleep — even if the phone is off. They should not use the phone as an alarm clock. It is too tempting to check social media and apps. Get them an alarm clock! Blue light from screens is associated with less deep sleep and less sleep overall, which in turn is associated with issues such as lower grades, higher body fat and a higher chance of depression. I would encourage parents to get all screen devices out of the bedroom if possible. It is a place to sleep, not an entertainment zone.

Setting an example

Vecht: We have a drop-off zone where phones are left in the evening to charge outside the bedroom. That also applies to my phone and my husband’s — 80% of parenting is about modelling. It is as important to think about your own behaviour as that of your children, and this includes things like not browsing on the phone in the street or when you are in the company of friends. 

Sigman: I would agree that parental role-modelling is important. Research shows that parents who engage in high discretionary screen time have children who are many times more likely to engage in high discretionary screen time as well.

This can be a challenge for parents who work from home. They have to try to ensure discretionary screen time does not bleed into family time. Do not wander around the house with your phone, and do not let an electronic device interrupt what you were doing with your child — it makes them feel unimportant. You need to decide how, where and when to have screens at home. Think about setting screen-free time for the whole family as well.

Families interact by common experience, all doing the same thing, and distractions like phones work against that communal feeling. So make sure everyone puts their phones away in such situations, even if you are just watching a TV programme together.

Good screen behaviours

Vecht: In our family there are no mobile phones during family meals or in the car, because that is often a good time to have a chat — especially with teenagers, who might find it easier to tell you difficult things when you do not have the same intensity of eye contact that you have in other situations.

Sigman: Children should not multi-task while doing homework. They should not have other apps open — the research shows they make more mistakes and do not remember so well. They need to develop sustained attention and to learn to burrow deep into one thing. Sustained attention is required for good grades, problem solving and creativity. I like the principle of having separate devices for work and pleasure. If you can, consider having a separate computer for homework. It can be a cheap one just for school work.

Online safety

Vecht: One of the obvious concerns is online safety. There are endless apps and extensive parental controls and filters for different social media platforms and devices, but these are by no means 100% effective in keeping children safe. They are no substitute for talking to your children regularly about responsible internet use. And it has to be regularly. During teenage years in particular, the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning skills, undergoes major rewiring. The ability to think through the consequences of actions and make logical decisions is impaired for a time.

I say my children should not connect with anyone on social media whom they have not met in person. We sit down together regularly and look at privacy settings. I tell them it is not that I do not trust them but my job is to keep them safe. I occasionally sit beside them and go through their Instagram and WhatsApp feeds, asking who people are and looking at the conversations.

Dealing with lapses

Vecht: You have to recognise that your children will make a mistake at some point and you will very likely find out. When we were young and did something inappropriate — say, at a party — only the people in that space knew about it, but now everything is out of your control.

Keep safe

For example, imagine that a group of children are at a party today. One of them might take an inappropriate photo of a friend without the friend even realising. Then the photo gets posted online. Pretty soon it will have been seen by all kinds of people, perhaps even including the child’s parents or grandparents.

The important thing in such circumstances is that your child should be able to talk to you without being terrified of the consequences. You have to help them deal with the situation without making them feel guilty or ashamed. You need to remember that good parenting is about engaging positively.

Banning and blocking do not work — children will only crave technology even more. Constant nagging, shouting, repeating, criticising and reminding are not effective either. Try to communicate and connect regularly with empathy and understanding. Show that you want to keep them safe and to help them develop good habits so they can learn to self-regulate and use screens in a positive way.

Focus on emotional intelligence

Vecht: A big part of the revised computing curriculum covers responsible and safe use of the internet, but I think the whole education system is outdated. Schools are concerned mainly about grades and knowledge, because that is how they are judged. We need to focus more on emotional intelligence. Skills like being able to communicate with others and being empathetic and understanding probably help you to be happier, more successful and enjoy better mental health. Recent research from UNICEF underlines the importance of social media for teenagers in building friendships, but too much can impair communication skills. The way you communicate using WhatsApp or by text is often different to the way you communicate in person, where you can pick up non-verbal clues. Reading those is a vital skill to learn and often only comes with lots of practice.

Sigman: It is easy to overplay the benefits of screen technology and to underestimate the harm its misuse may have on emotional intelligence and wellbeing. Parents and schools are courted and bedazzled by a prosperous, highly influential technology industry that implies that reducing screen time may in some way deprive children educationally and result in them being “left behind in the digital revolution”. A review of 132 brain-training, working-memory and video-game-training studies was recently carried out by Cambridge University in collaboration with other universities. The conclusion was that there is little evidence that such training enhances cognitive performance.

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