Most of us understand what it feels like to be always ‘on’ these days. Ever available and constantly connected by technology. It can be exhausting and interfere with critical functions like face-to-face communication, language and even sleep.
You got to choose this though. You were introduced, relatively slowly, to technology. You grew with telephones that had wires, went cordless, then turned into powerful tiny computers that could be used pretty much anywhere.
Your kids didn’t get to choose. They were born into a digital age that taught them that every action has an immediate consequence, and that it is entirely normal to be contactable any time of the day or night, wherever they are or whatever they’re doing.
Disclaimer: I am a huge cheerleader for technology and the part it has to play in education. Edutech companies like Udacity and Coursera have created digital distribution platforms that are pushing towards global democracy in education. I can get a ‘nanodegree’ online and for free. What a world.
Despite my enthusiasm for innovation in education, I know I’m not alone in believing it’s crucial for kids, particularly at primary school age, to switch off sometimes.
Why? Well, we know that from the moment they’re born until they’re about three years-old, children’s brains are developing at light speed. They consume and absorb information from their environment, which shapes their neural networks. This critical period cannot be adequately provided with screen time. It relies on human contact, language and physical stimuli.
Past the age of three, too much screen time can still interfere with good sleep patterns (critical for physical and mental development), increase problems with focus and attention span, and even add to the risk of obesity.
So, how can you encourage kids to switch off?
If your child is anything like mine, you’d have more luck wrestling a fish from the jaws of a starving crocodile than getting their iPad off them.
Rather than lots of negative rules, as always, positive reinforcement is the key. Remember that digital games are usually designed to trigger all those lovely chemicals in your child’s brain when they achieve a reward or unlock a level. That’s what you’re up against when it’s time to switch off.
Provide alternative stimuli with end goals. We’re not talking hours of crafting sessions here, I’m as terrified of glue and glitter as the next parent. Instead, find a few tasks around the house that fit with your child’s ‘likes’. They need to have an element of completion, i.e. they can be finished and achieved. Mine loves sweeping the floors or raking leaves in the garden. Bonus!
And it’s useful to offer a reward when the task is complete. This needs to be something immediate, not a promise of a future treat, to trigger that all-important dopamine hit. Fruit YoYos sre my six year-old’s treat of choice, but you might be a better person than me and not want to go for food-based rewards. Good old tried-and-tested stickers work for younger kids too. Key point – don’t give them TV or tech time!
This digital world is of our generation’s making and it’s an amazing world to be a part of. Our children will have opportunities we couldn’t have imagined. But let’s take responsibility for the impact it has on their physical and mental wellbeing and keep them healthy and happy, on and offline.