Parenting is difficult. It always has been. Oprah Winfrey once said, “It is the toughest job in the world!” (When I am up feeding at 3am each morning I tend to agree). Parenting in the digital age…well that adds a whole new layer of complexities.
Did you know that we are actually the first generation of parents who are raising complete ‘digital natives’? The way you raise your child is vastly different to how you were raised. You really can’t draw on your own experiences growing up to guide you because you took books, not tablets, to school!
Our children are growing up with an avalanche of screens. Their daily lives are saturated with media.
And there’s the rub for parents. There is a technology tension facing modern parents. You want your child to be adept with technology but at the same time you don’t want your child having excessive screen time.
On one hand you want your child to learn how to use digital devices, as these will be part of their digital world that they will inherit. You don’t want them to fall behind. But, you are terrified at the prospect of handing over powerful and potentially addictive devices to your children.
Yes, believe it or not, I face the same dilemma too. Even as a children’s media researcher I often grapple with what/if/when/ my son uses technology. It isn’t easy.
However, like most things in life we tend to over-complicate things. That’s why I am here to help. I want to make it simple for you. I want to dispel some of the popular myths about children and technology. I want to ease your [unnecessary] parental guilt associated with young children using technology.
So what essential information do parents really need to know so that they feel confident (and not guilty) about handing over gadgets to their children?
1. Don’t focus on HOW MUCH-
Yep, I said it. And no, it wasn’t a typo. For too long the focus has been on ‘screen-time limits’. We have prescribed specific amounts of time for screens. We have focused on ‘restricting’children’s screen-time. I am not suggesting open slather. And I am not suggesting that copious amounts of TV or video games are not harmful. [Excessive media use is unhealthy.] However, we miss a really critical factor if we simply focus on ‘how much’. WHAT a child watches is by far more important. Content is king. Is the video game age-appropriate? Does the game contain violent content? Is the TV show fast-paced? Are the music lyrics appropriate? Does the app encourage critical thinking or is it a drill-and-practice game?
2. Co-viewing helps (a fancy-smancy way of saying use media WITH your children)-
Using media, whether it be playing a video game or watching TV with your child has been shown to have positive effects on a child’s learning, especially their language.
Now I acknowledge that it is not always possible to sit down and play the iPad or a video game with your child. There are times when I have to make an important call or settle a baby. But when possible really try and seize the moment and interact with your children when they are using technology. If not, simply asking your child questions about the app that they just used or the TV program they watched shows them that you are interested. It also stops them from becoming a ‘digital zombie’ where they sit mesmerized by a screen.
This advice comes with a warning: you may just like some of these TV shows or video games yourself OR you may suffer hours of self-torture as you find yourself humming the Sesame Street theme song throughout the day.
3. Media is not TOXIC-
When designed appropriately and used intentionally technology can actually help children learn. We have ample research evidence that confirms this. Digital media can spark new ideas, provide children with access to new worlds and open up conversations not possible without technology. TV shows and DVDs can encourage new forms of play and apps can show children really abstract concepts in a lucid way [Check out The Human Body app as an example]. Technology really CAN ENHANCE learning! So breathe a sigh of relief. You are not necessarily harming your child if you hand them an iPad or allow them to watch TV.
4. Don’t always believe the marketing claims-
There is an array of digital products marketed towards parents of children that claim they are ‘educational’. From Baby DVDs that claim to enhance brain development to Mozart CDs that purport to improve brain function to apps that will teach your baby to read or recognise letters or numbers. Yes babies now have a preschool curriculum (which I personally think is tragic). There is actually very little research that proves that many, if any, of these techno-products actually do improve learning. There is actually some research evidence that suggests that baby DVDs can actually have an adverse impact on language development. So don’t feel compelled to buy your child the latest, shiniest new techno-gadget just because it claims it will prepare your child for Harvard. Chances are it won’t and they will probably find more educational value in the box that the device came in.
5. WHEN children use technology is critical-
We now have ample evidence to suggest that screen-media in the 90 minutes before bed has an adverse effect on children’s sleep patterns (and adults too). The brain needs screen-free time before bed. It needs to calm down. Digital devices need a bedtime too.
We also know that rapid-fire, fast-paced media (think cartoons or video games) before school has an adverse effect on children’s capacity to learn in a classroom. So be mindful about when you allow your child to use technology.
Tell me in the comments below, which of these five tid-bits of information provides you with the greatest relief? What would you like to know more about.