With school holidays on this week, you might be wondering about over use of technology in downtime. How do we manage this when it comes to our kids and where should we draw the lines to keep our kids safe in a digital world?
First of all, it's useful to define what sort of technology we are talking about. I asked my ten year old son the question and he said it couldn't mean spoons as that's a type of technology and I'm always telling him to use cutlery! Yeah, he's getting to the smart aleck sarcastic stage!
This one is all about digital technology and we are going to be thinking particularly about how we support our children to use digital technology appropriately and safely.
Finding a balance
The most obvious parameter for what's appropriate has to be the age of the child. And secondly, how much time they spend on screens. As parents we are aiming to raise happy, responsible, well balanced adults and it helps to keep that in view. It's really easy to want to protect and defend our little ones from all that the big, scary world might throw at them but in fact it's our responsibility to give them the tools to handle whatever they come across in life, whilst quietly praying it won't be too big or too bad. That said, it's important that it's bit by bit, one step at a time.
Tiny children are amazing! Give a three or four year old a tablet and they will be swiping and exploring within minutes, developing skills at a rate that adults can only envy!
On one hand this represents an opportunity and on another, a risk. The skills they develop will be useful throughout their lives and there are some great educational apps out there. But there are so many other things to learn too. Lessons you can only learn in fields and mud, parks, gardens and crayon boxes. And then there's the magic of reading which, once the skills have developed can take you into as many fantasy worlds as any computer game.
There is a place for all these things in a child's life but it's important there is a balance. What that balance looks like changes as a child grows. Small children can benefit from learning how to use technology but need plenty of time outside too. We know teenagers need and crave social contact and digital technology can provide for some of that need.
There was an interesting story on the BBC recently about how one man's life was enriched by his involvement in the online gaming world. On the other hand that can go the wrong way too, but the thing that can really help to keep our kids safe, is the right connections.
Are children still connecting in the "real world"?
This is one of many areas of life, where it really helps if we are navigating these challenges alongside our children. If they are online, who are our children connecting with, and is that to the exclusion of family and friends in the “real” world?
There are some simple ways we can help our children maintain connections with us, whilst also enabling them to explore some of the online world. One example is to play collaborative games. Our family enjoy Little Big World and Rayman Legends as two examples. It's really fun to sit down together and battle through fantasy worlds disguised as squishy frogs! Equally we enjoy board games together, so a screen is not the only way, but it is one tool we can use.
Interestingly, studies have found that parents who play video games with their children are much more able to assess the associated risks and to help their children manage them, which you can read about here.
Another important way of maintaining connections is to have digital technology tied to particular parts of the home. It makes a lot of sense to avoid too many devices in bedrooms and instead to have them in parts of the house where they are visible. That way kids know you can see what they are doing, and you can see what they are doing! It's important to be transparent about the fact that you're keeping an eye on what they are doing when they are online in order to maintain trust. They also need to understand that you're doing this to keep them safe because there are real dangers out there to be aware of.
Our ten year old son spends hours on YouTube. That sounds terrible, doesn't it? In fact, he spends hours in the room adjoining our kitchen following tutorials making clay models and origami animals. He's developed some fantastic skills and we sometimes really enjoy joining him and doing some making together. I think that provides a good example of how digital technology can provide great learning opportunities and opportunities to connect with and have loads of fun with our children.
The Risks of Technology
That brings us on to risk. And there are risks with digital technology, although that may not always be the risks we are thinking of. The recent momo hoax is an interesting example. Parents and schools went into a bit of a panic thinking that this was a hoax that would lead our children into dangerous behaviours. In fact, the panic resulted in a lot of scared parents and children, perhaps distracting them from where the real risks lie in internet use (like the YouTube videos that really do have nasty bits spliced into them).
I think this makes it clear that it's important to keep a rational head on and to talk to our children about things in a sensible and measured way. After all, we are hoping they become sensible and measured adults who can identify real risks and manage those risks safely.
Equally, cyberbullying can be a big worry but we can turn that on its head too. It can be another opportunity to talk to our children about how to treat other people, and to call it out when we see examples of bullying. That also relies on connection – we need our children to turn to us when they have something they are struggling with. We need to put our phones down too, and be ready to listen.
A different sort of risk is the way in which digital technology can be used to “babysit” our children. Before I had kids I had high ideals; we wouldn't watch T.V. or play video games and there would be no tablets in our house. Now my views are a little more nuanced.
Ideally, we sit down together to use these types of technology. But sometimes my husband is working away and I'm really tired. The T.V. or a game keeps the kids entertained long enough to give me a bit of a break and to get a reasonably nutritious meal on the table. And the downtime has given me a moment to recharge my batteries and engage in some important family conversation over a meal time.
Sometimes it's about quality, rather than quantity, and sometimes a bit of downtime does the kids good too. That said, it's actually really important that we don't fill all our children's time. It's good for them to be bored sometimes as it is the way creativity starts, which you can read about here.
Sometimes it's good to say no.
Now, while the kids are enjoying a highly educational edition of Horrible Histories, I might just have to browse Lucy & Yak to check out some of those comfy clothes. Just for a moment of downtime, you know?! Only question is, Mink Alexas or Maroon Umis? Oh and did you see those Lauries?!