Technology: a double-edged sword for modern parents

Kinderling News & Features

There never seems to be enough hours in the day with small children around. Screens can be a godsend for many parents when they need to get something done, but we all know they can be a curse if used too much.

We parents become distracted from those beautiful micro-moments life provides, and kids have crazy techno tantrums when you tell them to get off their devices. So how can we find balance in the digital world?

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a technology and development expert and she shares how we can best juggle technology with a family.

I’m trying to get dinner on the table, and the kids are fighting, so it's easiest to whip out the iPad. Should I feel guilty for giving in to the screen?

Techno guilt and shame is pervasive, whether we give it to our kids, or use it ourselves. But this sense that there’s something wrong with technology isn’t quite right, according to Kristy, since technology is part of our lives.

“Digital amputation or avoiding using your screens - I call it digital abstinence - around your kids isn't realistic,” Kristy says. “In fact, our kids need to see us using technology, they need to use technology, but equally we need to show [and teach] them how we can switch off and not use it.”

Kids will develop healthy habits with screens when they see us and are guided by us. No matter what, they will inherit this digital future, so we have to help them navigate in the best way possible.

We know that if screens are part of an overall balanced childhood, that they're not necessarily toxic or taboo. And unfortunately, we often hear media reports and we hear stories demonizing technology and kids, when in actual fact the research tells us that if kids are using developmentally appropriate and using technology in intentional ways, that it can actually support their learning,” Kristy explains.

Something like watching a movie, or playing an on-screen game with a parent can develop special interactions with the family, so it’s not all bad.

Kristy says,I think we need to sort of dispel this myth that screen time is always negative and it's taboo and it's toxic, and instead look again at what they're doing and make sure that it's part of this balanced life. And then I think we can ditch that guilt and angst.”

How can I manage my child’s digital world?

“There are three B's when it comes to managing your child's digital world,” Kristy says.

1. Basic needs

“We've got to make sure that screens aren't displacing or superseding our kids’ basic needs … Things like sleep, play, physical activity, social interaction, good quality nutrition.”

2. Boundaries

“Boundaries not only around how much time kids spend with screens are important, but equally as important, is that we also look at what kids are doing with screens when they're using them, how they're using them, where they're using them, and with whom they're using them. And as parents, we have to be the pilot of the digital plane, we have to enforce those boundaries so that our kids can develop these healthy technology habits.”

3. Balance

“We've got to make sure that we balance kids screen time and their green time. We need to make sure that kids are having all the digital experiences that they're having, and they still have unplugged analogue experiences as well so that they can get that full range that will lead to their optimal health and wellbeing.”

What time should I allow for the iPad vs. TV?

This is something that Kristy is frequently pressed to answer, but it’s a loaded question. In short, there’s no one amount of time that is good or bad. It’s more about the quality.

“At the moment our government guidelines class all screen time as equal and we know that's not necessarily the case. You know an hour on the iPad could be very different to an hour watching TV,” she observes. “If we unpack exactly what they're doing, that can give us some peace of mind as well.”

Kristy recommends you gauge the content of what they’re doing. Is it entertainment or educational? Is it active or passive? Is it age-appropriate or does it have scary, violent themes?

Listen to Kristy in The Juggle series:

Something else to consider is that touch screens or gaming consoles (if age appropriate) tend to develop more thinking skills because the brain is actively involved. However, passively watching an educational documentary can be an equally important learning experience.

Kristy also notes that government guidelines regarding screen time have never been scientifically validated. There’s never been a study confirming their recommendations. Kristy says we need to know the child and content to figure out what’s best for them. An hour on the iPad might be fine for one child, but another might have an abhorrent techno tantrum with agitated, frustrated behavior after that same amount of screen time. All kids have different tipping points.

Should I be using screen time as a punishment when the kid’s misbehave?

I actually strongly advise against parents using screen time as a reward or punishment tool,” Kristy says. “I'm the first to admit I've dangled the digital carrot ... but if we use it all the time as a reward tool, it develops a transactional relationship with our kids.”

“It starts to elevate the status of the device. We know most kids find technology innately pleasurable and all of a sudden if we're offering it as a reward, it becomes highly desirable. So it backfires in that sense. When it comes to using it as a punishment tool ... to say to your child, ‘You punched your sister, you've lost TV rights for a week,’ it's not a logical consequence.”

Especially when kids are older, if they see something inappropriate online they won’t report it as they are trained to do, because they’ll fear punishment of a technology withdrawal.

We really want to develop a relationship with our kids so that when they see something inappropriate, when they're a victim of cyber bullying, when they've seen pornography, that they feel that they can come to us without being digitally amputated,” Kristy notes.

So it’s good for kids in careful moderation, but what about the grownups?

Absolutely use screens! Adults need a break too.

“Neuroscientists used to call it daydreaming or mind wandering mode and it's this state where we get into where we turn off what we call the prefrontal cortex,” Kristy explains. “This is the part of the brain that makes all the logical decisions. It manages our impulses, it's the memory centre of our brain. And when we can watch trashy TV, when we can scroll mindlessly through social media without much attention, then it gives us that mind wandering mode.”

And sure, Kristy advises against using your screen like this ALL the time, but parents – the gratuitous use of screen every now and then is A-okay!