Between late December to early January 2017, I had an unexpected, yet forced, ‘digital sabbatical’. And it was delightful and scary all at once.
My family and I spent a week house-sitting a stunning house at stunning Whale Beach (on the gorgeous tip of the Northern Beaches of Sydney) and then went caravaning down the south coast. Now, these were both planned holidays, but what I hadn’t anticipated during this time was being completely unplugged for two weeks!
At both of our holiday destinations, I had absolutely no Internet service. Not a single bar of service. Not even one, where I could at least attempt to do the WiFi dance. (I heard Jocelyn Brewer state, for many modern kids, their three greatest fears in the modern world are poor WiFi signal, low battery and the spinning wheel of death… now I understand why!)
I made some powerful (and confronting) realisations during this forced digital sabbatical. I realised with my idle time (there was no time fidgeting on Facebook, or itching to look at Instagram) just how much of my mental bandwidth must have been dedicated to my online world.
This really got me thinking.
How much time am I spending plugged in? What impact is this having on me, as a person, as a wife, as a mum and even as a friend? How do I want to change my screen habits and my kids’ screen habits in 2017?
When I finally re-entered my digital life and picked up a WiFi signal, I admit, I jumped straight back onto Facebook (after clearing out my inbox, of course). And I saw a whole lot of posts, in various groups that I’m in, about people’s intention to reduce their kids’ screen-time and better manage devices at home in the coming year.
So many people were making new year tech-resolutions. I wasn’t the only one grappling with my digital obsession!
There were posts about people lamenting how screen-time kind of crept into their family life and took over in the previous year. Posts about feeling guilty about demanding that their child switch off the iPad and go outside and play, yet they’re the one still on their phone or laptop. Posts about wanting kids to get outside more and spend less time plugged in.
So this got me thinking. What changes do I want to make to our family’s tech habits and my personal habits in 2017?
Below are some of my suggestions. Now please don’t think that you need to adopt my ideas. These are merely food for thought. But I strongly encourage you to take the time to critically think about what changes you want to make when it comes to setting up your family’s tech habits in 2017.
Stop and think about what habits you want to modify in your family. Take a moment to assess what’s working and what’s not working. What can you try and do better or differently in 2017?
My kids’ new habits
// Stop focusing on how much time my kids are spending online and focus on what they’re doing.
Content really is king. And I tell parents and educators this in my seminars and addresses, but I must admit, I still really focused on quantifying how much time they were online each day.
It’s time for us, as parents, to ditch the techno-guilt we inflict on ourselves, as we obsess over how much time our kids are plugged in. Yes, given that we had analogue childhoods, we probably did spend more time outdoors and playing than our digital kids do, but that doesn’t mean that all of their screen-time is toxic or ‘bad’.
Trust me, you’re not the only parent worrying about how much time their kids are spending plugged in. The second annual nbn Digital Parenting Report, that I’m proudly involved with found that 50% of parents surveyed still worry about their child’s screen-time (despite 74% agreeing that digital skills and access to fast broadband (77%) are key to prepare kids for a future workforce.)
As a gentle form of reassurance, we don’t need to constantly fret about quantifying kids’ screen-time. Yes, they definitely need limits and we need to balance their screen-time with their green-time, but we don’t need to fret and feel guilty about their pluggin time. Screen-time can be beneficial, especially if we’re selecting the right content and also giving them plenty of time to unplug!
Instead, we need to focus on maximising their time online (fast and efficient broadband always helps), ensuring that they’re accessing educational content most of the time (there’s a heap of video tutorials, podcasts and even learning to code), teaching them to mono-task, not multi-task and using technology with them.
// Give fixed cut-off times or quantities.
If your child is old enough to understand the very abstract concept of time, then giving them a time limit when it comes to screens is a great idea. However, up until around 6 years of age, it’s unlikely that your child actually understands the concept of time.
So instead, of saying, “You’ve got an hour on the iPad.” You could instead say, “You need to turn off the iPad at 4:30pm.” (It’s only a very subtle difference, but a clear time like that is not ambiguous and if you’re anything like me you’re much more likely to remember that time, as opposed to vaguely remembering what time they started using the iPad.) For kids who are just beginning to learn to tell the time, this can be a great way to teach the time too. See my example below where I use washi tape to signal where the hour and minute hands will be when it’s time to turn off the device. And remember, they need priming before their elapsed time is complete, so try and give them a reminder a couple of minutes before their time is up. (If you want to know more about this video, you can watch this Facebook Live video where I explain things in more detail.)
For younger children I suggest giving them a specific number of episodes that they can watch, or a level in the game that they can reach. For example, you might say, “You can watch two episodes of Play School and then I want you to turn it off.”
For our family (my boys are currently 3 and 6 years), giving the eldest clear cut-off times and the youngest quantities of shows that he can watch has worked really well. I now need to stick to this formula.
// No screens before school.
Every now and then I cave into my kids’ pressure and let them watch TV before school (yep, guilty of doing this even though I suggest in my Parent Seminars that parents avoid doing it). And it rarely works for our family. (Now, I know, for some families, using screens is an effective tool to help with managing the morning chaos so I’m not suggesting that you make changes. If it ain’t broken, don’t try to fix it).
But on the odd occasion that I give in and let the TV or iPad enter our morning routine, things always go pear-shaped. So for us, at this point in time, we’re going back to screen-free mornings and I’ll let them have their dose of digital in the afternoons, if they feel like it. (Bonus tip- wait till your kids ask to use devices. Sometimes I think we automatically revert to offering them screens, when sometimes they’re just as happy to play or do something of their own liking).
// Use screens with or near my kids.
I’ll admit sometimes I ‘screen’ my kids so I can get things done. I can pop on the TV and then make an uninterrupted phone call, do a radio interview, or send a couple of emails. And it works. Just about every time, (unless there’s a buffering issue, or sibling squabble over what they want to do!) Sometimes, because of the nature of my work and my choice to work from home most of the time, I need to be on my device when I’m also with my kids. And this is really tricky sometimes. So to ease my guilt, I’m trying to spend some time before and/or after the screen goes on to chat with my kids about what they watch and I’m even trying to use my device around them (and not in the study, or the kitchen).
Simply asking your kids questions and engaging with them before they use a screen is beneficial. Researchers call this ‘cognitive priming’ but it really just means getting your kids actively involved and ready to make meaning from what they’re about to watch/play/create. I can ask them questions about what they are going to (or have just) watched. I know that when I show an interest in what they’re doing online I show that I value their screen-time (that it’s not toxic or taboo) and I can also help them make meaning from it. (The added benefit of doing this? Co-viewing, as it’s formally called, helps to prevent the ‘digital zombie’ effect where they become completely engrossed with what’s on the screen).
I’ve also been experimenting with using my devices when I’m in close proximity to my kids (and not sneaking off to my office when they’re digitally-occupied). I started to explore this after Marion Rose, shared a Facebook comment about using her laptop around her kids to help them all feel connected. It sounds very insignificant, but I started to implement this strategy and it’s made a really noticeable difference. It also helped me to talk to my kids about switching off devices and model healthy technology habits.
If I’m totally honest, it’s also because Mr 3 is very much a velcro-toddler, meaning he wants to be close to me and know where I am.all.the.time. So if I try and disappear to my office, which is about 5m from where he watches TV, he often gets agitated and screams out, “Where’s you Mummy?”. So to overcome this, I started bringing my laptop (or phone) and sitting next to him on the lounge as he watches TV (or uses the iPad, on occasion) with his brother. We’ve been literally screening together. And it’s really changed how we interacted. I could pause from what I was doing and ask him questions, or respond to his questions. (This is fascinating as it confirms recent research that found that co-viewing (i.e. using screens with your child) helps children to pay attention and to make meaning from TV shows. So I’m definitely going to try and do more of this.
My new habits
// Social media hours.
It’s so easy to go down the social media rabbit hole. What was intended to be a quick 2 minute Facebook check-in on my business page, can soon turn into me reading something interesting by Brene Brown or Maggie Dent (ladies whom I really admire and work I love) and then before you know it I’m checking Instagram and replying to an email and then…. I tried this idea on and off for a couple of months last year. And it worked, but poor habits crept back in at the end of last year when exhaustion and Christmas-crazy time ensued.
In the last few weeks, I’ve delayed turning my phone on in the morning and checking social media, until after I’ve done my Miracle Morning routine, been to the gym and had a dip in the ocean. And wow- what a difference I’ve noticed. I feel so much calmer in the mornings because I’m no longer plugging in to the energy of the online world before I’ve switched on.
// Regular digital breaks.
I realised how much ‘mind-wandering’ I did when I was unplugged for two weeks. I had a flurry of ideas and felt so much calmer and peaceful (long, days at the beach, with virtually no plans and lots of reading and laughs with friends may have also helped). I entered what neuroscientists call the ‘default mode’ of thinking. So I need to schedule in more unplugged, completely disconnected time. Time where I’m not tempted to quickly check email, or social media. Time for me to enjoy white-space. So I definitely need to plan some regular tech-free time each week, where I’m not digitally-distracted.
I’ll certainly be unplugging when I go to Bali in late June this year. I’ll soon be sharing some information about the upcoming Digital Detox in Bali, where I’m presenting some practical workshops about simple and realistic ways that families can manage screens and have some digitally-disconnected time too.
// Digital curfew.
Over my break I enjoyed hot summer nights that were spent reading and chatting face-to-face with hubby and friends. They were bliss and I realised how much I’ve missed these, in my plugged-in, always-on life. I realised during my forced digital sabbatical that I rarely do this at home. I often jump back on my laptop and then my phone once I’ve managed to get the kids in bed (and at the moment, that’s a loooong mission with Mr 3). Again, I need to practice what I preach in my seminars and try to limit my screen-se at least 60 minutes (ideally 90 minutes) before I collapse into bed.
So there you have it. My honest confessions and my intentions for 2017 when it comes to our screen habits. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to adopt my tech-resolutions. But I strongly encourage you to develop some of your own. We really need to teach our kids to form healthy relationships to technology and be able to manage it and not the other way around where technology manages us.
Some other possible resolutions
// Establish tech-free places.
What places in your house do you want to be screen-free? I recommend bedrooms, meal areas and play spaces. You can read more about screen-free dinners here.
// Establish tech-free times.
Nominate set times of the week where you won’t use screens. Is it at your daughter’s swimming lesson, or when you’re at the park? Identify places where you want to really be unplugged and avoid all digital distractions. Where and when do you want to completely abstain from your digital device? Remember, be realistic. There’s no use, saying that you’ll have an entire day, or week, if you’ll only resume tapping, swiping and pinching after the break is over. Instead, establish feasible and realistic goals about where and when you’ll use your devices… and then try to stick to them!
// Update your privacy settings.
Now might be a good time to check your privacy settings on your social media accounts, as these can sometimes change with new updates.
Don’t ban, plan
Rather than ban (or fear) screens, you need to have a plan. You can download a FREE copy of my Media Management Kit here, so you can plan your family’s media habits for 2017 (and ditch the guilt about your child being plugged in). And then you’ll be able to finally ditch the guilt and guesswork about screen-time.
I’d love to know in the comments below, what tech habits are you trying to implement in 2017 with your family?