HEALTHY TECH USE
It won’t be news to you that technology either is, or is going to be, a huge part of our kids’ lives. As parents we’re not going to be able to prevent this – the stable door is open and the horse has bolted. And nor should we want to. Instead, the opportunity that lays ahead for us is to fully engage with the technological world our kids inhabit and to encourage healthy tech habits from an early age.
I've been spending some time recently with the insightful Jocelyn Brewer from Digital Nutrition. She agreed to let me interview her to explore what healthy tech use looks like for her.
Are violent games like Fortnite really that bad? At what age should kids have access to these types of games?
I guess that really depends on what you see as being ‘that bad’ – compared to what? Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty or playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’ (which we might think of as very uncool in 2019!).
Fortnite is designed for kids over 13. So, should kids under 13 play it? No. Is that difficult to for parents to enforce? You bet, especially when other parents allow their children on it before they reach the ‘digital age of consent’.
The relative upshot of Fortnite is that it’s not a persistent world, battles are only 20-25 minutes, it’s not a gory violent game (though the aim is to be the last person/avatar standing) and there are lots of opportunities to collaborate, play as a team and strategise.
That said, it is compelling and due to the sheer number of kids who are engaging with it and hanging out/congregating in the game (it’s like a digital skatepark or town hall steps) it makes it hard to walk away from, especially for young people who have insufficient psychological architecture to make spontaneous ‘good choices’ and do their homework over playing.
What I would love to see is more kids playing a variety of games and having a more diverse menu of games to choose from. I recommend parents and kids visit gamesforchange.org and have a look through the hundreds of games they have and enjoy the benefits of gaming by applying skills and energy to more pro-social games and stories.
What does healthy tech use look like?
That all depends on a range of factors – like the age of your kids, their temperament and personality, your family’s values, attitudes to technology, lifestyle factors, etc.
Generally we think of health as being when there is a positive and adaptive level of functioning, that problems are absent or minimised – so that’s what we are aiming for with technology use.
I consider when tech use is mindful, meaningful and moderate it’s likely to be ‘healthier’ and more adaptive. We need to consider that health itself is a continuum and sometimes healthy habits can be taken to extremes which then become unhelpful. So it’s always about the bigger context of our lives – our sleep, sedentary activity and social factors.
What boundaries should parents put in place re tech use?
Having some practical understanding of what their kids are doing online, why they are keen to do it (their motivation) and what they get out of/enjoy about it (the potential benefits) is very helpful.
Parents should be savvy and informed about what the ‘next cool tech thing’ is and have confidence in navigating to trusted sources of information on apps and games (Common Sense Media is great for this, so too is the eSafety Office).
Being clueless about tech is not an acceptable excuse (especially in an information age!), but bans and abstinence are unlikely to be effective either – so it’s about finding a middle, adaptive ground that’s based on quality information.
Parents should be willing to reflect on their own technology use and not put ‘rules’ in place that they would not follow themselves – young people see our habits and model them, placing restrictions on teens when double standards exist generally fall flat.
Ensuring sleep spaces and routines are fiercely protected from ‘device creep’ is a key way of promoting wellbeing – so limiting unsupervised device use in bedrooms and before attempting to fall asleep is helpful. It can be simply that the wifi goes off at night or that smartphones go onto flight mode and only more digitally ‘nutritious’ uses of tech like mindfulness or relaxation apps are used.
How should I handle it when my child plays at a friend's house and where that friend's parents have a much more laid back approach to tech use than my partner and I?
This is about communication (maybe tough or awkward conversations) and boundaries. I suggest that parents need to be willing to enquire from other parents what guidelines or rules might be in place, the kinds of activities kids might be doing and outline any concerns or red flags they might have.
It might be if you have very strong attitudes or restrictions on what your child plays or accesses that you need to politely express these and come to an understanding or compromise about what happens.
What parental control apps would you recommend?
To be honest, I don’t. Not necessarily because I don’t think they have their place but I am cautious of offering this as a solution to a complex problem. There are many of these products on the market (almost all of which I have heard that kids have found ways to hack!) and parents need to do their own due diligence with finding a product that meets their family’s needs.
Any software should not replace teaching kids the soft skills they need to learn to master their device use and build the skills to make good choices online.
At what age would you recommend they can start playing online games with their peers?
Again there is no set rule for this – we need to consider bigger and deeper questions around things like what games they might play (the purpose of the game and the skills required, the rating of the game, etc.), in what context (on a rainy day or after a soccer match) how often they can play, how long they can play for in a stretch, etc.) and in what format (console games in the living room or kids on smartphones geographically distant). If the duration, frequency, appropriateness and safety of the game is balanced, online gaming can be excellent for peer relationships.
How much screen time should kids have per day/week, recognising that they often have screen time at school and that for older kids homework is often set online.
There is what the guidelines say about this and there is what the guidelines should or could consider when attempting to prescribe healthy technology habits. It can be really tricky to look only at time limits in a meaningful and relevant way. The guidelines are only for non-educational uses, which presumes that all time spent on screens at schools is truly 'educational' and free from physical risks like eye strain - which is not always the case!
Parents need to consider primarily if their kids are getting enough sleep time, play and exercise time and down time before filling 'free' time with screens.
When is it OK to stop monitoring their tech use? Is their privacy something we should be considering?
Yes, children’s privacy needs to be considered – right from birth when parents might start posting and sharing all kinds of content that the child doesn’t have the ability to provide consent for.
Monitoring is useful, as long as it isn’t ‘spying’! Planning with and having conversations about the online skills needed to be safe and savvy users of technology is paramount – as is building trust. You might set some goals and expectations around the kinds of skills you’d like to see your child demonstrate before you take the proverbial ‘digital training wheels’ off.
What are the top 3 things I should teach my tween daughter about social media?
Vanity metrics don’t measure your worth as a human being.
Social media should be a supplement to, not a source of connection and friendship.
Social media is not an accurate reflection of our lives, it show cases the best snippets. Judging yourself against those snippets is unfair and unhelpful.
What's your number 1 piece of advice for parents about tech use?
Be proactive and informed, invest the time to build the skills and knowledge to create the relationship with technology you want for your family with the same energy and excitement as before going to birthing classes! We tend to ‘hope for the best’ with parenting tweens and teens but we really need to captain the ship for young people.
Jocelyn is a psychologist and speaker with a special interest in the psychology of technology. You can find out more about Jocelyn on her website: www.digitalnutrition.com.au
Do your research and come up with a clearly defined approach to tech use that works for your family
Connect with your child - find out what they are engaged in online and why they enjoy it
Check out gamesforchange.org and redirect your child to healthier online game choices