Keep your family out of the digital void

What can I do about my young boys who I think are becoming obsessed with gadgets?

I like to be on my phone too and many times I have to, so it’s hard for me to limit their gadget time when I need to also constantly check my cellphone for emails, messages and do Google searches. But it seems it’s affecting our family time more and more.

Make your own family media use plan. Media should work for you and within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately, media can displace many valuable developmental activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.

Treat media as you would any other environment in your child’s life. The same parenting guidelines should apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits as children need and expect them. Know your children’s friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, what sites they are visiting on the web, and what they are doing online.

Set limits and encourage playtime. Media use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children. Put all gadgets out of sight if possible out of sight, out of mind.

Screen time should not always be alone time. Co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children when they are using screens – it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning.

Play a video game with your child. It’s a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. Watch a show with them; you will have the opportunity to introduce and share your own life experiences, perspectives, and guidance. Don’t just monitor them online – interact with them, so you can understand what they are doing and be a part of it.

This helps bonding too but should not be the only way you connect with them.

Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children naturally imitate parents, limit your own media use. You’ll be more available for and connected with your children if you’re interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.

Fully grasp the value of face-to-face communication. Very young children learn best through face-to-face communication. Engaging in back-and-forth “talk time” is critical for language and emotional development. Conversations can be face-to-face or, if necessary, by video chat with a travelling parent or far-away grandparent.

Research has shown that it’s that “back-and-forth conversation” that improves language skills – much more so than “passive” listening or one-way interaction with a screen.

Limit digital media for your youngest family members. It is highly recommended to avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 months other than video chatting with family.

For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn more from watching and talking with you.

Limit screen use for preschool children, ages two to five, to just one hour a day of high-quality programming. Co-viewing is best when possible for young children.

They learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they just learned through a screen.

So, if Barney just taught letters A,B,C, you can reiterate these later when you are having dinner or spending time with your child.

Create tech-free zones. Keep family meal times, other family and social gatherings, and children’s bedrooms screen-free.

Turn off televisions that you are not watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight – outside your child’s bedroom to help him or her avoid the temptation to use them when they need to be sleeping. These encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep.

Apps for children – do your homework. More than 80 000 apps are labelled as educational, but little research has demonstrated their actual quality.

Products pitched as “interactive” should require more than “pushing and swiping.” Explore organisations like commonsensemedia.org for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games and programs to guide you in making the best choices for your children.

It’s okay for your teenagers to be online. Online relationships are part of today’s typical adolescent development.

Social media can support teenagers as they explore and discover more about themselves and their place in the grown-up world.

Just be sure your teenagers are behaving appropriately in both the real and online world. Many teenagers need to be reminded that a platform’s privacy settings do not make things actually “private” and that images, thoughts, and behaviours that teenagers share online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint indefinitely. Keep communication lines open and let them know you’re there if they have questions or concerns.

Warn children about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators and sexting.

Older children need to know that once content is shared with others, they will not be able to delete or remove it completely.

They may also not know about or choose not to use privacy settings, and they need to be warned that sex offenders often use social networking, chat rooms, email and online gaming to contact and exploit children.

Remember: A child will be a child. Children will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment.

But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at deeper problems. Parents need to carefully observe their children’s behaviour and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help.

Media and digital devices are an integral part of our world today. The benefits of these devices, if used moderately and appropriately, can be helpful and fun.

But, research has shown that face-to-face time with parents, family, friends, and educators plays a pivotal and even more essential role in promoting children’s learning and healthy development.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.