How to tackle screen ad­dic­tion


Do you feel con­cerned about the amount of time your chil­dren spend on­line? Do you find tech­nol­ogy causes fric­tion as you wrench their screens off them at the din­ner ta­ble and bed­time?

Rare is the par­ent who will an­swer ‘‘no’’ to ei­ther of those ques­tions.

But then ask your­self this: Do you also end­lessly check your own smart­phone? How of­ten do you de­ploy tablets as babysit­ters, to keep your dig­i­tal dar­lings quiet when you need to get on with things?

It’s hands up to every one of th­ese things from me, and I know many other par­ents who are strug­gling to find bal­ance in this era of hy­per-con­nect­ed­ness. We are the first gen­er­a­tion of par­ents who are en­coun­ter­ing this as a prob­lem and, un­til now, there has been no blue­print as to what we should and shouldn’t be do­ing.

But that is set to change with Un­plugged Par­ent­ing, a hard­hit­ting new book by lead­ing clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Eliz­a­beth Kil­bey, who ar­gues that if we don’t tackle the prob­lem of screen ad­dic­tion early, then we are in grave dan­ger of dam­ag­ing our kids’ de­vel­op­ment.

‘‘If we, as par­ents, leave our chil­dren unchecked, we are go­ing to make their lives a lot tougher in the long run,’’ says Kil­bey.

Screen time – games and so­cial me­dia af­fir­ma­tion – stim­u­lates the re­ward cen­tres in young brains which makes kids crave ever more hits.Hence some com­men­ta­tors have taken to us­ing the term ‘‘dig­i­tal heroin’’.

But Kil­bey is less damn­ing, ar­gu­ing there is a mid­dle way and that break­ing our kids’ screen ad­dic­tion doesn’t mean turn­ing them into play­ground pari­ahs un­able to re­late to the mod­ern world. A mother of three (aged 16, 14 and nine), she even con­fesses that her youngest child, Eliot, was given his own tablet at the age of four.

‘‘It was an en­tirely prag­matic de­ci­sion made to pre­serve fam­ily har­mony,’’ she says. ‘‘I need my tablet for work but he would keep tak­ing it, so I bought him one.’’

But al­though it is teenagers who ap­pear fix­ated on screens, Kil­bey be­lieves that chil­dren be­tween the ages of five and 12 are most vul­ner­a­ble.

Once a child reaches pri­mary school, deep in­side the brain cru­cial con­nec­tions are be­ing made that shape a child’s iden­tity and lay the ground­work for so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and emo­tional re­silience.

‘‘Chil­dren take in so much at this stage; they ob­serve and copy,’’ says Kil­bey. ‘‘They learn how the world works and ob­serve the emo­tional com­pro­mises nec­es­sary in daily life.

‘‘A child who spends their free time up­stairs alone and on­line is miss­ing out on test­ing their own phys­i­cal bound­aries.

‘‘I’m not naive, I don’t think ditch­ing all the de­vices in the house is a vi­able op­tion,’’ stresses Kil­bey. ‘‘But I see the fric­tion screen time causes: chil­dren con­cen­trate so hard it in­duces a state of hy­per-fo­cus where they are obliv­i­ous of ev­ery­thing around them.’’

Kil­bey sug­gests a num­ber of prac­ti­cal strate­gies to cut back on screen time, the most in­ge­nious be­ing the cen­tral­i­sa­tion of charg­ers so that chil­dren have to hand over smart­phones at bed­time.

An­other use­ful piece of ad­vice is en­cour­ag­ing screen time in fam­ily ar­eas so chil­dren are not iso­lated for long stretches of time.

But parental mind­sets need to al­ter be­fore real change can take ef­fect. And that means not just pulling the prover­bial plug on our chil­dren, but our own be­hav­iours, too, and hold­ing our nerve.

‘‘Mod­ern par­ents feel obliged to en­ter­tain their chil­dren which they re­ally don’t need to do,’’ re­as­sures Gil­bert.

‘‘Be­ing bored is part of life and chil­dren are pre­dis­posed to amuse them­selves.

‘‘Stick with it and you will not only be do­ing your kids a great ser­vice, you will trans­form your fam­ily’s life.’’ – Tele­graph Group

Screen time stim­u­lates the re­ward cen­tres in young brains.

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