As I write, my seventeen year old daughter is in her room on her own computer doing an online research internship with someone she has never met in another city. Her entire social life is organised through lengthy text threads and she stays in touch with friends, some in different countries on endless Facetime calls. She is a digital native and has never known a world without smartphones and social media.
We adults also love our devices. We use them to learn, work, create, play, shop, relax and connect. Jenny, Juliet, Victoria and I have set up The Parent Team and run our first term using technology and we have yet to get together in real life!
But we’re also aware that, as children, we didn’t have much digital access (except TV) and we spent a lot of time out in the real world, having face-to-face experiences and contending with boredom. We worry that our children may be missing out on these ‘real world’ experiences and that too much exposure to the online world may be damaging their development.
Even as mature adults, with the ability to manage our impulses and delay gratification, most of us find it hard to balance our online and offline worlds, and we want to help our children develop a healthy relationship with technology. We want them to benefit from the many opportunities technology provides, and become digitally competent, and we also want to protect them from any potentially negative side-effects and have a full ‘real life’ experience too!
So, what can we do to create that balance between our children’s online and their tech-free world?
Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of effective families is ‘seek first to understand’ and is always the best starting point ….
The online world offers a huge amount to children. It meets several of their core needs – connection, fun, curiosity, challenge, and agency. And all of these contribute to having a positive sense of self-worth.
Kids feel connected through social media, particularly when their ability to see friends in real life has been so limited recently. They have freedom to create, edit, and share. They can immerse themselves in fascinating facts and different worlds. They feel successful as they fly through levels in games, or gain likes for their latest TikTok clip …..
Yet we also want their self-esteem and understanding of themselves and others to be rooted in real-life experiences. We want them to feel they can use technology to enhance their life, but not feel as if the online world rules their life.
Here are our 5 favourite top tips for getting that healthy balance between online and offline use.
Find your child’s Magic Number
In ‘Decoding Boys’, Cara Natterson recommends finding the Magic Number - which is the amount of time that your child can spend on a screen before they hit the ‘mood wall’. For your child, it may be 20 minutes, for others it might be more. When you know how long they can spend on a screen before turning into a mini tyrant, help them learn to switch off before they hit that number.
We love using timers or verbal prompts for this. And, when they do switch off without complaint, make sure to offer up some descriptive praise. And when they’re finding it hard, rather than get mad, be empathetic. Don’t pretend you find it easy!
Create a Family Technology Contract
It’s tempting to download a family technology template. It can be a good starting point, but it needs to be personalised. Take a week to observe who is using which device for what purpose and for how long. Gathering data is the starting point for building healthy digital habits as a family.
Juliet recalls having a Family Meeting to discuss how much time everyone spent online. They made a list of all the things they needed to do, like eat and wash, homework and music practice, and another list of all the things they loved to do, such as playing cricket in the garden, reading books, and visiting family and friends. They made a pie-chart with 1 hour segments and allocated 9 hours for school, including travel and after-school clubs, then another 12 hours for the bedtime routine and sleep ….. Now with just 3 hours left on a weekday, and an hour or so of homework, reading and music practice to fit in, it was clear that spending 2 hours playing Fifa meant they would miss out on doing the other things they loved. Seeing the breakdown of their time made it easier for them to decide what their family rules would be. (They went for longer bouts of Fifa at the weekend so they could keep honing their cricket skills during the week!)
Many families use the THINK model in their family contract. It’s a simple but effective way to manage posts and texts – before hitting send, check whether the message is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind. If it doesn’t pass the THINK test, have a re-think and a re-write.
And it’s a good idea to remind kids that using technology is a privilege, not a right. Given that we supply the devices, and pay for the contracts and Wifi, and that kids aren’t yet able to manage the time they spend online or the messages they post, it’s appropriate that parents have the right to monitor what’s happening until such time as the children have shown they are digitally responsible.
Set up a Digital Village
We’ve all heard the “But everyone else has it … why can’t I?!” And it’s tempting to go into a lecture about how the minimum age for TikTok is 13 and Fortnite is 12 and how you don’t believe it’s suitable for your 9 year-old. It’s also tempting to just give in …. Why not use the old-fashioned method of reaching out to other parents? Do all the other kids really have unlimited access? The reality is that some will, and others won’t but our experience is that most parents share similar concerns and face similar challenges.
Creating a Digital Village can be a real game changer! Coming to a collective agreement about what the children in your social group can play, for how long and how late into the evening makes it a lot easier for everyone.
Our long-term goal is to help our kids develop healthy digital habits. This means we’re here to teach and support, rather than control, limit, and ban. (If you’ve tried that negative approach, you’ll have to admit that it is very hard work and has limited success …..) And the best way to teach and support is to get stuck in and show them the way!
This means we have to walk our talk and actively manage our own digital hygiene. It’s also a great idea to be curious about your child’s gaming or social media interests. Be positive – ask them what they love and enjoy about what they do. And many families tell us how much fun they have had playing WITH their kids. The kids love it too, although not all the time so don’t get carried away! It’s not often our children get that lovely experience of being far more skilled than we are!
Plan tech-free time
So much easy to say than do, we know! Organising real life activities is much harder work than allowing a bit more digital time ….
If you can’t get through a whole tech-free day, start with an hour during the weekend when you spend time together without phones and tablets. If the kids are lucky enough to join any sort of summer camp, or you’ve got a Staycation booked, challenge yourselves to leave the phones behind!
Children adapt surprisingly quickly to leaving their gadgets behind. One study by Commonsense Media revealed that tweens who spent 5 days away at a camp without access to their phones or the digital devices “developed a greater understanding of real-world interpersonal communication cues. … were better at reading facial expressions, making eye contact, and interpreting tone of voice and other prompts, such as posture and keeping an appropriate spatial distance with others.”
After a long period of time when we have had to be online more than ever before, make the most of the opportunities for face-to-face real-time real-life connection this summer!