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Lower the bar- why it’s okay to ditch your screen-time rules right now

Parents, please lower the bar and release the pressure valve when it comes to adhering to strict screen-time limits during the Coronavirus lockdown period.

Trying to stick to your pre-Corona screen-time rules, while we’re all bunkered down at home, will only add to already-elevated stress levels. For most of us, we’re experiencing uncharted waters. Stress may be high as many of us have been suddenly thrust into working from home (#wfh) arrangements and balancing it with home-schooling demands (I think we all universally agree now that teachers’ work is invaluable). Please don’t add any more unnecessary stress by trying to follow strict limits on screen-time.

Now, I’m not for a moment proposing that we give kids and teens free reign to the WiFi network, iPad or gaming console. They still need boundaries and limits, otherwise many would walk around tethered to their digital appendage 24/7 if we let them. Instead, I encourage parents to be the pilot of the digital plane and not the passenger. As the pilot, you need to set boundaries with your child (don’t present them with an screen time contract and expect that they’ll adhere to it). And your boundaries need to extend beyond simply quantifying time spent on devices.

What else parents should be focusing on right now, instead of screen-time limits?

  1. Focus on WHAT, rather than HOW MUCH- Focusing exclusively on how much time kids and teens spend online is only one metric and one piece of the puzzle. We need to have more nuanced conversations about screen time. Your child could be adhering to screen-time guidelines in terms of the amount of time they’re spending with digital devices, but could be spending that time playing age-inappropriate games or apps, or watching mindless YouTube clips (ever watched an unboxing video? You’ll know what I’m talking about). Instead, focus on what they’re doing with their screen time. Is it leisure or learning? Is it active or passive? Are they consuming or creating or communicating? Is it age-appropriate? Not sure what’s appropriate and what the current risks are, then visit the Office of eSafety Commissioner, the Australian Council on Children and the Media, or Common Sense Media for reviews. I also highly recommend that parents have Internet-filtering and parental controls set up on all digital devices (especially the smart TV which is often overlooked), so you know exactly what content they can access and set limits on what they can access (more important than ever before if you’re trying to work and manage life with kids and teens at home and may have less capacity to directly supervise them). I personally use and recommend The Family Zone.
  2. Set boundaries around WHEN they can use devices- We know that kids’ and teens’ are much more likely to be victims of cyberbullying and online predators at night. Not simply because they often have unsupervised access at night, but because of how their brains work. At night, the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, switches off. This is the part of the brain that helps with logical processing, decision-making, impulse control- basically their high-order thinking skills. Instead, their amygdala, an area of our brain that helps with our emotional processing, fires up at night. This can be a diabolical combination – they’re using devices and their logical brain is offline and their emotional brain is online. They’re more likely to send unkind messages, or share inappropriate photos at night. So as the pilot of the plane, have firm boundaries around their digital bedtimes. Nominate a set time and space where devices go to bed- the kitchen counter, study, laundry. This will not only ensure their online safety, but will also help prevent any negative impacts on their sleep because of increased blue light exposure.We also know that waking and reaching for a digital device first thing in the morning can compromise kids’ and teens’ mental wellbeing (for us too), as it activates our limbic system. The limbic system is our body’s primitive, but very effective, threat alert system which is where the fight, flight or flee response begins. When we experience a stressful event, which our brain may perceive when we’re looking at social media posts, or messages from friends, or playing a vigorous first-person shooter games, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus which functions like a command centre- it communicates with the rest of our body through the nervous system. This stress response activates the sympathetic nervous system- so we have the energy to fight, flee or fly. Try to delay when you introduce screens in the morning as it may hyper-arouse your kids and teens and make it difficult to start the day in a positive fashion (and goodness knows, we need all the help we can get right now to start the day on the right foot).
  3. Set limits around WHERE they can use technology- Where are your no-go tech zones in your home? Where are the places and spaces where phones, laptops and tablets do not go? Your teens are very unlikely to send nude photos while she’s sitting at the kitchen bench, but are much more likely to be doing it in their bedroom or bathroom. A parent recently disclosed that her Year 2 son was sitting in the kitchen doing his online maths homework, on a free website that his teacher had prescribed, when a pop-up ad for a pornography website appeared. Had her son been doing his homework elsewhere, his mother may not have heard the inappropriate sounds coming from his laptop, or seen the colour drain out of his face as he watched the video ad.
  4. Teach then HOW TO use devices in healthy ways- Given that our kids are spending more time than ever on their digital devices, it’s critical that we ensure that their physical health isn’t being compromised. Are they getting enough ‘green time’- i.e. time outdoors in the sun? This will not only help to prevent myopia, which is near-sightedness, but will also help to regulate their circadian rhythms, which will help with their sleep. Ensure that their screen time isn’t displacing the time they have for physical movement. Not only will this boost their mood by elevating their positive neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, it may also help with their focus and counteracting some of the increased sedentary time they may be having now. Are they spending enough time being physically active (if you haven’t got on board the PE with Joe train, check it out)? Are they using headphones correctly? Ideally, kids and teens should be wearing noise-cancelling headphones, as opposed to ear bud headphones, to prevent conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss. Download a free copy of my Digital Wellbeing Checklist to help with some practical steps to preserve your kids’ physical health online.
  5. Know WHO they’re interacting with online. I know we’re all stretched from time and stressed right now, but it’s vital that you know who your kids are playing with online, who they’re interacting with on Houseparty (and teach them how to lock a room), and who they’re chatting to on WhatsApp. Be mindful that many of the digital playgrounds where your kids and teens are congregating is also the place where online predators are too.Have ongoing conversations with them and talk to them about how to interact online respectfully and responsibly- they don’t learn these skills through osmosis. Remind and encourage them to come to you, as the pilot of the digital plane, when someone sends them something unkind, elicit or inappropriate (and remind them that they won;t be punished by being ‘digitally-amputated’). Now, more than ever, our kids need to be using technology to connect with their friends to compensate for the social isolation they’re experiencing.

 

I highly recommend setting these boundaries in collaboration with your kids and teens. Get their buy-in and ideas about how they think they should be using ipads, laptops, TVs and gaming consoles over the lockdown period. They’re much more likely to follow the boundaries if their voice has been heard. Focus on these boundaries, in addition to how much time they’re spending online and ease the concern that this increased screen time may be detrimental to their wellbeing, health or learning. No one has any time for #technoguilt at the moment.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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