SCREENING CHILDREN’S WELLBEING
We pre-millennial and ‘elder millennials’ are not always the most tech savvy people on the planet. Sometimes it feels as if our children were handed iPads as they passed ‘go’ through the birth canal.
As parents, this can feel both alienating and alarming, especially when we keep hearing that technology is ‘ruining lives’. Can this really be true?
The hard truth is, research is developing in this field and reports vary wildly - depending on the motivations of the writer - meaning we may not know for certain until our kids are well into adulthood.
Some reports cite the ill effects of gaming to include social isolation, increased anxiety, over-production of dopamine and avoidance behaviours; while others cite the positive effects of increased spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception skills. Which is correct? Perhaps both?
When we were kids, our parents were quick to inform us that TV and/or MTV would “rot our brains”. The jury is still out on that one…
Conditioned by this core belief and now with so much more to worry about than hidden drug references in 70’s cartoons, we might ask ourselves, “Am I a bad parent for giving them a device?”; “Is any amount of gaming OK?”; “Will they fall behind or become a social pariah if I ban technology in our home?”.
The good news is that worrying about being a good parent makes you a good parent. But… there’s a difference between being alert and being alarmed.
Most schools require that children (sometimes as young as 5) use multiple devices to complete their work. While we may not agree with this, the Australian curriculum is based on in-depth research, conducted by experts, which has informed this recommendation.
While you have every right to set your own rules around technology in your home, it can be difficult to enforce these rules within a school or social context. If you’re concerned, do some research. Share your concerns respectfully with the school. Ask questions and attend parent information sessions. Ask your child to share their homework with you. You might be surprised by the educational value of what they’re actually doing online.
If you do decide to bring devices into your home, set boundaries around their usage. This may be only on weekends, before dinner time or with your supervision. Hold your ground. If your rules aren’t being followed, confiscate the devices concerned until there is a change in behaviour.
Screen time can be a great bargaining tool. When there is unwanted behaviour, a technology ban can be a logical consequence. For example, “If you have time for gaming, you have time to finish your homework.” Conversely, it can also be an opportunity to show your child appreciation for demonstrating trustworthy, responsible behaviour.
Giving your child some screen/gaming time can actually help them to ‘blow off steam’, which can be healthy, in small doses. Much as we might unwind after a long and stressful day with a glass of wine and it doesn’t make us ‘alcoholics’, your child may wish to ‘switch off’ momentarily while they recalibrate and this doesn’t make them a ‘gaming addict’.
If they are experiencing stress (e.g. bullying at school), gaming, in particular might actually have become a coping mechanism. They may be trying to regain a sense of control or achievement in a ‘virtual’ world, when their real world feels out of control. It’s important to ensure that your child is not using this coping strategy as an avoidance technique in the long term. Sit down with them and find out what the underlying problem is, so you can help them to solve it. If necessary, seek support from the school or a professional.
If you child is engaging in excessive screen time or gaming, you may notice changes in their behaviour (e.g. becoming withdrawn, incomplete schoolwork, angry outbursts or spending less time with friends and doing the things they enjoy).
If you suspect your child has a gaming or social media addiction, this is certainly a very real concern that should be dealt with swiftly and you may need to engage a professional. As with any form of addiction, the behaviour of concern is only a symptom. It is important to uncover any underlying issues that your child is experiencing and support them through this.
Is technology creating a generation of socially disconnected individuals, as the media informs us? During the pre/teen years, it’s normal for children to ‘pull back’ from their parents and begin to establish their own individual identities. If they are alone in their room and talking to friends online, at least they are still talking – they aren’t necessarily depressed or isolated.
The world is a very different place to when we grew up. Social connections between children may be different to how we interact with our own friends. Your child may (believe it or not) actually be using technology to access help with their schoolwork, make new friends with similar interests or connect with extended family (who can be your eyes and ears online).
Some children are simply not ‘outdoorsy’, no matter how hard we push them to go camping or on family bike rides. If they’re feeling outcast at school or at home, because they don’t fit the social ‘norms’, making friends online who feel the same way can help to validate and normalise them.
However, it is vital for you to know who is on the other end of the keyboard and to ensure that the content your child is accessing is age-appropriate. This may mean changing your internet access settings, ensuring you have passwords for all devices and only allowing use of these devices in shared spaces. Take a genuine interest in your child’s online friends and maybe even say “hi” to them yourself (you’ll soon be able to tell if you’re talking to a 14 or 40-year-old).
We fear the unknown. If you still think Fortnite is two weeks from Tuesday, you’ve got some Googling to do. If you can’t beat them, join them! Friend request them on Instagram or TikTok. Or buy a second controller and join the game! You’ll begin to understand what the heck they’re talking about and enjoy some quality time together. You could even take a family field trip to Supanova or Comic Con.
While gaming might not seem like a ‘valid’ activity to you, it might be the only area where your child feels a sense of achievement or social connectivity, or it might even be a potential career path for them. Look for the value in what they’re doing. Listen to the subtext of what they’re telling you. Actively seek teachable moments. For example, if your child wants to post gaming tutorial videos on YouTube, validate their dream and help them form a plan to turn this into a goal. They could develop skills in video editing, script writing, marketing or developing a business plan. These are real-world skills that will serve them well at school and in the workforce, even if they don’t become a YouTube star.
Encourage open dialogue with your child around any negative experiences they’ve faced online. Was someone bullied? Did someone share inappropriate material? Help them identify how this behaviour made them feel and why it was inappropriate. This can help build their emotional intelligence and resilience. While it is important to protect your children from such behaviour, it is equally important for them to feel they can come to you with their concerns, without judgement or over-reaction.
Realise that technology is a speeding train – gaming, social media and the internet aren’t going anywhere. We can’t do anything about this, but we can work in ways to ensure safe and healthy usage.
Giving your child a bit of freedom can go a long way in showing them you trust them as individuals. This can build their self-esteem, strengthen your relationship, encourage them to take responsibility and inspire them to maintain your trust.
If you or your children are experiencing any concerns or issues around gaming or social media, know that this is common and that help is available, as a family.
In an emergency, call 000. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 any time for free.
Artius Health offers appointments with qualified, experienced Psychologists via Telehealth, no matter where you are in Australia. Face-to-face appointments are available at our clinics throughout QLD.
Health Care Card and Pension Card holders are bulk-billed. Ask your GP for a Mental Health Care Plan to access the Medicare rebate.