The great debate of our era: is technology more helpful than it is harmful? Until 2020 hits. And then we were bulldozed into a world of screens and forced to focus on the positives and turn a blind eye to the damaging statistics of excessive screen time. All that effort to encourage children to play outside, engage in anything BUT a screen, gone – out the window completely. The children had finally won, or so they thought.

Unbeknown to us at the time, we would rely on technology for everything for over a year (well those of us that were lucky enough not facing digital poverty). Work, school, shopping, socialising, playtime and exercise were all forced on screen. The one and only thing we could keep were our walks. Those glorious (any excuse to get me out of the house) walks. So we all had to develop some form of tech fluency and quickly, for this new way of life.

For some of us it took longer, and others it didn’t really feel like such a big deal to start with. But by January 2021 as lockdown life continued and Zoom fatigue set in, I don’t know any adult who enjoyed this online life. We already knew that technology wasn’t going anywhere. But we weren’t quite prepared for the pandemic to accelerate the use of technology so quickly. During this time most of us slipped into some bad screen habits which is completely understandable. Coming out the other side I am sure lots of parents are left wondering whether we will be able to get our children’s attention back without some sort of screen rage attack? Or are we at the point of no return?

The effects of too much screen time

We are all aware that too much screen time can be harmful for our children. But did you know that it is literally rewiring children’s brain development. This can negatively impact key developmental skills (in terms of social and neural development). This is particularly true regarding young children, as by five years old their brain development is 90% formed.

Now this is where I try to convince you that it’s not all bad. Some research claims that screen time is fine, as long as it doesn’t replace the important things in your family life. Technology is helping some children learn better, specifically as all children learn in different ways. It is making learning more accessible. Children who may struggle to work in traditional ways are able to record their work more effectively using programmes on the iPad or computer, showcasing their skills and making progress in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before. In fact, some people even think that video games might give the younger generation an edge. Keyhole surgery involves looking at a screen while completing tasks – what does that remind you of? Who knows, perhaps gaming could actually improve the technical skills of our surgeons!

Changing our relationship with technology

Wherever you sit within the debate, avoiding technology completely is simply not possible. Instead of bemoaning it, we need to develop a growth mindset regarding online life. We need to learn how to live alongside technology harmoniously. Actually technology isn’t necessarily the issue itself, as it is simply the vehicle – so really it becomes fairly neutral. The problem is more about how we use it and the quality of screen times. Not all screen time was created equal.

Computer screens are often needed for school, work and learning, whereas watching TikTok videos on an iPhone feels very different. We need to be aware of this. We also need to break down how children use technology. It is a tool for learning, a tool for socialising and a tool for leisure. The same can be said for adults. We use technology for working, contacting friends and of course our guilty pleasures, such as binge watching Netflix series. In fact, it isn’t just children that are addicted to their screens. A report form Common Sense Media highlighted that adult addiction rose from 27% to 45% between 2016 to 2019. Slightly concerning statistics and ultimately we cannot deny that technology has its challenges. However by understanding the different uses which tech plays in our world it can help us navigate it more safely.

Creating health habits

In order to do this we need to think about our role as parents and how we create healthy habits where technology doesn’t take over our lives negatively. Our role seems fairly simple: to teach our children how to use technology safely, develop healthy screen habits and become responsible digital citizens. How we go about this is not so simple. Like anything in life, moderation is key. But how do we moderate our time on screens when so often our world is forced online? It can take time, and although it might not be easy, (especially with tweens or teenagers) it is possible.

There are things you can do to take back control of the screens in your home. Clear and explicit rules are a must. Children will find any ‘grey’ areas and push the boundaries. If the rules aren’t clear you might find you become inconsistent. Establishing what your values are regarding technology is also really important. Your rules will only work if you are clear on your own values, and you work together as parents.

But mostly these rules need to be based on a loving and respectful relationship with your children. They need to know what’s in it for them and why these rules are in place. It’s about finding suitable times for being online and (lots of) times without it. It’s about guiding our children and helping build their awareness of things like their digital footprint. It’s also about modelling to our children what it means to be a good digital citizen, and showing interest in their online world. If we do this then we can hopefully develop healthy habits, ultimately creating cyber smart children with digital resilience.

Back to the classroom

Although remote schooling won’t be missed one bit, perhaps this last year enabled some of us to form a more positive connection with technology? Maybe you found yourself more connected to your child’s world, or even observed how skilful some gaming actually is? That being said, thank goodness schools have reopened. We just know children belong in school and need social and physical interaction. School also provides a safe place. A space where children learn to have fun whilst feeling secure on and offline.

Being part of a school has also helped me embrace technology and learn how to be a better digital role model. I am certainly no tech pro (although I did somehow manage to qualify as an Apple Teacher!). But by working as a teacher you are forced into building your tech fluency and understand how you can support children’s digital learning. Utilising technology carefully and effectively in lessons can hugely enhance children’s learning.

In order for this to be successful, we worked continuously to keep the children safe online. We signed a class charter, we had computer and iPad monitors, and class reviews about usage. For example, in playtimes and story time. Most importantly, the children understood there were rewards and sanctions. They learnt they had a responsibility to play and enjoyed taking ownership of it. We had regular discussions about technology that always involved the children. We spent time explaining the rules and why they were there. We reminded the children what they could do if there was a problem and reassured them that they wouldn’t get into trouble. This of course took time, but eventually the children understood these rules as they were based on mutual respect and trust.

Setting clear guidelines

As a new Mum I am already acutely aware of the potential challenges around screen time, addiction and so many other issues. My one year old is pretty savvy using my husband’s Apple watch. She grabs, taps and swipes quite effectively actually. Of course I am concerned about the damaging technological effects, but I am going to try my best to set clear guidelines for her and us as a family so it can enhance our lives. I will certainly not let technology replace the things we value. And who knows my daughter may even end up as a keyhole surgeon and we could have technology to thank!

In the meantime I have written some helpful tips so we can start as we mean to go on. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, it’s clear we all have a responsibility to play our part in creating a healthy relationship with technology, good screen habits, and responsible digital citizens.

Tips to encourage healthy tech habits for children

1. Try to have a positive mindset about technology

It’s very easy to associate it with negativity. It really isn’t all bad. Try to think how we can use it to enhance our child’s learning, as it is not going anywhere. Technology can really help children learn, especially if your child has specific learning needs. It can improve their skillset, boost understanding, and support their learning. Even lego is set up using technology to improve their game and encourage different types of play.

2. Outline a clear set of family rules which you all agree to

You could even create a charter and sign it as a family. Try to phrase these positively. For example, ‘You can use technology once your homework is finished’ instead of ‘no technology until you’ve done your homework’. You could even have ‘drop zones’ so everyone knows they are responsible for leaving their phones in areas for mealtimes, bedtimes, and so on. Each household is different. Create rules that work for your family based on your values. It’s important that you all stick to the rules as a family and there always needs to be a cut off time (at least one hour before bed).

3. Create clear rules – with no areas of confusion or inconsistency

When you discuss and establish your rules, it is key that you really break down what you mean and what it could look like in different scenarios. Be clear when they are allowed to use their devices / screen time or technology. Along with where, how long for, if that changes at the weekends, for mealtimes, when friends or visitors are round, etc. This will help everyone stick to the rules and mean no children will find those loopholes!

4. Involve your children in your ‘rules’

Sitting down and asking for input from everyone will show them you really value their feelings. It will also demonstrate that you understand how important technology is to them. Even if you don’t choose their ideas, they will feel valued that you discussed them. Explain your worries and why the rules are important to you. This could help them consider their actions and respect them more. Including children will also help them stick to the guidelines as it gives them that accountability! Try to focus on all the things they are getting right – any progress at all – and praise them for this.

5. There has to be rewards and sanctions

Establish these together and ensure your children really understand these. You need to be firm and consistent with these rules. Actions have consequences. So even if it’s a positive reward, such as ‘well done you managed to follow our rules today you can use your device tomorrow,’ is enough. Equally if your child wasn’t able to follow the rules you will need to ensure that the sanction happens.

6. Treat media as you would any other area in your child’s life

The same parenting advice applies to real and onscreen life. For example, get to know your children’s friends online and offline, what platforms they like and use, and help children be aware of who they are connecting with and how to keep safe. Remind children that if they see something that worries them they know to come and speak to you. It’s important to reassure children that if there is a problem, you won’t be angry and we will listen without judgement.

7. Finding the balance is key

Remember that unplugged playtime is still your priority. Children need to be playing /spending time outside as much as possible. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity – whatever they might tell you!

8. Do your research

Get to know what games, apps and websites your children are using. This is really important as it may seem children will often know more than you about the internet and apps, but they may not know about keeping safe and navigating. Teach them from an early age about responsibilities, keeping safe. Show them, remind them and practise with them. Consider using wifi blockers, safety settings or websites like Common Sense Media.

9. Show interest in their technology world

Remember your children are digital natives and they know no other world. Technology is therefore very important to them. By connecting with them over technology you are showing them you care and that you’re interested in their world. It could be a great way to bond with them and could make their day (even if you hate every single minute moment!).

10. Be conscious of your own screen time use

Adult addiction is on the rise. It’s hard to expect children to follow the family rules if we as adults are constantly using our phones, texting, and responding to emails. Even if it is work, children often won’t understand and it could lead to communication breakdowns or create rebellion and resentment.