Saturday Essay: Tech Tips To Help Improve Children’s Digital Well-being
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The amount of time we have all spent online has increased dramatically over the past year but for children who had to swap the classroom for remote learning and replace playing with friends with online gaming, the change was particularly acute.
As we now get used to the new norm, parents may be finding it difficult to tempt their children away from their screens and back to the hobbies they enjoyed before the pandemic hit. If this sounds familiar, parents could benefit from the timely advice from Jonny Pelter, founder of digital well-being platform Just Ask Max, who has put together some tips to help families reclaim control and help their children strike a healthy balance between tech and offline hobbies:
Digital family pledge
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From the start, parents should empower their children to take responsibility for how they behave online and set out some ground rules about what’s expected of them. It can be helpful for parents and children to sign up to an informal agreement which sets clear boundaries and expectations regarding internet usage in the home. Establishing a set of ground rules that the whole family can subscribe to will help everyone buy-in to the responsible use of technology, such as the introduction of tech-free spaces around the dinner table, for example, so they can enjoy uninterrupted conversations and spend quality time together.
Vodafone has released a fantastic tool which helps families create their own internet use pledge which covers quality screen time, how to be kind online, social media and gaming. It takes around ten minutes to complete and provides families with a pdf you can print out and stick on the fridge afterwards! It’s a great way for parents to communicate with their children that there are responsibilities involved in using the internet, shows them you’re taking this seriously and defines what you expect of them when there are tantrums.
You can find more information at https://help.justaskmax.com/en/articles/5064771-digital-family-pledge
Manage screen time
Excessive screen time can increase chances of obesity, disturbed sleep patterns and behavioural problems. Negative effects develop over months not days, so it’s important parents help their children develop the right tech habits at home early on so they have a healthy balance for the long term. An easy way to manage screen time is to use the in-built controls in devices or parents could use an app like Bark or Qustodio that enforce a screen time schedule.
Strike a balance
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Research shows quality screen time is more important than quantity. For example, it’s more beneficial if a youngster spends two hours watching an educational cartoon rather than an hour of YouTube unboxing videos. It’s all about quality - children should be allowed some down time on their devices but parents should monitor lower quality content.
Games such as Minecraft enable children to interact or be creative and Roblox teaches youngsters coding and design skills, however, parents shouldn’t rule out passive TV watching entirely. Children can learn a lot from them, especially if they can recount and build on details about the content afterwards.
Tame tech tantrums
Most parents will experience meltdowns when they take away a child's device or try and reduce their screen-time. Tech tantrums can happen for a multitude of reasons - when devices or screen time are removed or reduced, they’re overstimulated due to spending too long on a game or video or they don’t know how to move from one emotional state to another state, for example transitioning from online gaming to remote learning. Parents need to be aware that digital entertainment is designed to feel never-ending to keep users hooked. This means when children don’t finish a game, they feel like they haven’t had chance to make progress. Parents that attempt to curb this endless fun are likely to be on the receiving end of a tech tantrum.
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Parents could use a transitionary activity to ease them off. Using phrases such as “It’s time to turn off the Xbox. After you’ve turned it off would you like to kick a ball around outside?” are likely to be better received than if they were to just remove the device with little warning. Parents should do all they can to ensure their child gets enough good old fashioned non-screen time such as playing sports outside – not only does it improve their fitness, but physical activities also help to discharge kids' stress hormone. Downtime also ensures youngsters become accustomed to a slower pace of the real world, away from the constant dopamine hits of the digital world.
Try a digital detox
Almost everyone who tries a digital detox reports multiple health benefits such as being more focused, having better concentration, a greater ability to be ‘present’ with other people and an increased ability to manage digital distractions. Parents should focus on offline experiences to help their family relax, communicate together and connect emotionally. Consider taking up a hobby that you can do together as a family such as a sport, learning an instrument or get into nature.
Jonny comments: “While parents may be tempted to ban devices in a bid to reduce the amount of time their children spend on tech, taking them away would just be jarring. Children have grown up with access to technology and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. This is why it’s so important parents know how to regulate the behaviour that’s driving tech usage. A more measured approach to help children transition slowly towards a more balanced digital life would yield much better results. It is possible to achieve a healthy balance but it can take time to change from tech to a more traditional hobby and embed new behaviours in day-to-day life.”
The pandemic has highlighted just how valuable technology is to keep people connected and entertained so it’s crucial parents know how to protect their children when they are online.
Jonny continues: “Having access to the internet means the world is literally at children’s fingertips. Over the past year in particular, youngsters have got used to spending the majority of their time online, often with little adult supervision. While parents don’t want to hamper their progress or fun, they need to ensure they’re doing everything they can to keep them safe while they’re online, as they would do if they were outside the home.”
Follow Jonny’s advice to stay safe online:
Maintain an open and honest relationship
Check social media privacy settings
A public Facebook profile provides potential fraudsters with all the key information to commit fraud or sexual predators enough information to start grooming.
Parents should check their children’s privacy settings (doesn’t need to be overly frequently) for all social media sites, review historic posts for sensitive information, and remind them to only accept friend requests from people they know in real life.
It's easier said than done, but parents should do all they can to maintain an open and honest relationship with their children, particularly regarding what social media channels they’re using. When something goes wrong online, you want them to come to you - not ‘friends’ they met online - for advice and guidance.
Keep phones out of bedrooms
Children can end up squirrelling themselves away in their rooms, becoming more and more isolated as they endlessly scroll social media on their own. Research has shown that simply having your mobile device in your bedroom, even if it’s turned off, significantly affects your ability to sleep soundly. Restrict devices to rooms that aren’t used for rest and relaxation.
A family charging station, which is relatively inexpensive, means everyone can put their devices on to charge before bedtime to prevent children staying up late scrolling through social media channels, too.
Finally, consider whether any Wi-Fi connected devices with a camera are located in an area where you or your family may undress. This typically includes baby monitors, fixed webcams and laptops. Covers help prevent horrible sextortion attacks where cyber criminals record us, using our own webcam, in a compromising position and then use it as blackmail material to extort us. This is done by criminal gangs on a systematic basis, targeting teens especially, usually getting £500-800 in blackmail funds.
Just Ask Max is the world’s first digital well-being service, designed to support parents in protecting their families online. The subscription service helps parents tackle internet issues, from scammers to sexting. Parents are able to speak to a team of experts who base solutions on a family’s specific needs, such as the platforms their children are using.
Primarily provided as an employee benefit, Just Ask Max supports staff with their digital lives, helping to foster healthier relationships with technology, reduce digital distractions and extend cyber security controls to remote workers. It also works with schools to address child safeguarding issues.
Jonny Pelter is the founder of tech start-up Just Ask Max - helping organisations foster digitally healthy people, at home and at work. Just Ask Max’s utilises a leading team of advisers in behavioural science, cyber security, EdTech and digital parenting. For more information visit https://justaskmax.com/about/