Screen time saviours
Wondering what all that gaming and social media is doing to your kids mental wellbeing? Us too. So we've asked the experts for their advice on how to keep screen time safe.
Wondering what all that gaming and social media is doing to your children’s wellbeing and health? We’ve asked the experts, from school heads and tech experts to psychologists for their advice on how to keep screen time safe.
THE PREP SCHOOL HEAD
Ben Beardmore-Gray, Headmaster, Moulsford Prep School, South Oxfordshire
It’s not unusual for children as young as two or three to be given ipads or iphones to keep them occupied these days so this is a massive issue that isn’t going to go away. For the children in my prep school, with a top age of 13, I find the problem is less about social media and more about the gaming that goes on at home, most recently with Fortnite. You’d see the boys looking tired or notice their work not up to scratch, and if you dig deeper you find out they stayed up late or got up early to play the game.
Schools have a big part to play in helping kids have a healthy relationship with technology – any school worth its salt will be seriously proactive in this area. Education is key – both for the children and the parents. Children need to learn why they must self-regulate and parents need to know what’s going on under their noses; unfortunately many of them don’t have a clue as it’s not their world. That’s why we organise an e-safety officer visit, annually for the boys and another biannually specifically for their parents. I feel we have a duty to help them too.
By Year 8 (age 13) all Moulsford boys have covered a full course on digital citizenship, covering their digital footprint, the impact of their behaviour online, sexting, legal and pastoral implications, cyber bullying, plus technical elements like cookies, phishing, tracking, and targeted advertising. And we appoint a boy in each class to be a Digital Assistant, elected to monitor what the other boys are up to with the class equipment– it’s about self-policing, creating a culture of what’s acceptable and not. Boys want clear boundaries and when they overstep the mark amongst their peers – more than anyone else – the message sent to them can be powerful.
THE INTERNET EXPERT
Ghislaine Bombusa, Head of Digital at Internet Matters
The best way to stop kids getting frustrated when parents tell them to stop gaming is manage their expectations. Have conversations about what they do online and agree some digital boundaries. It’s equally as important to review this agreement as they grow and their needs change to make sure it still works for them and the family as a whole. And be a good example that children can follow. Children tend to copy what we do and not always what we say so it’s very important that they also see that you are using screens in a way that is balanced.
If you don’t understand social media, ask your child about the social platforms they’re on and get them to walk you through how they work so you can learn more about how they interact with others on the apps. Social media is all about sharing so make a point discuss the types of things they should and shouldn’t share with others online so they are ‘share aware’. Encourage them to be critical about what they see online especially if they are not sure about who posted it. Discuss the reasons why people might post or say something that may not be true and their intensions behind it. Ask your child to walk you through how to report and block people online if they feel concern to make sure they know how, and make them aware that they can talk to you, a trust adult or a confidential helpline (like Childline) if they need support. Finally talk about how to manage conflict with friends online so they don’t say or do something online that they would later regret and have the tight coping strategies to deal with digital challenges.
Still worried? Utilise apps like the Forest app that enables your children to grow a beautiful forest each day they don’t use their phone for a set amount of time. The iPad’s Guided Access’ limits the time you can access any given app, which can be great for younger children.
Visit internetmatters.org/advice/social-media for more tips and advice.
THE SECONDARY SCHOOL HEAD
James Cope, Deputy Head Pastoral and Simon Palferman, Housemaster, Cowell’s of St Edward’s School, Oxford
The rise of social media is one of the defining features of the 21st century to date. At its best, social media can be a tool to inspire, to share and to inform. Meanwhile, estimates released recently by analysts Newzoo place the worth of the global gaming market at £110bn – a figure expected to increase by more than a third in the next three years.
One thing is certain: these two colossi of the digital age are not about to disappear, and they both present new challenges for parents and educators alike. Curiosity and a rush for independence are nothing new to adolescence, but the opportunities for them have certainly moved on. The risks from cyberbullying, to name but one of many areas, are becoming all too familiar to us all.
The key to children’s online safety stems from education and positive engagement. Prevention or banning increases the risk of rebellion and workarounds being sought, taking the potential harm even further from view. Honest discussions about cyberbullying, sharing nude or suggestive imagery online and forming ‘friendships’ with those one doesn’t actually know, increase awareness and trust and offer the best help for young people’s online safety.
Consequently, and perhaps ironically, our view on how we can best help our pupils use social media and gaming safely is to have very open face-to-face discussions with them. We find they are generally engaged, aware, safe and good to work with when we do.
THE BEHAVOURIAL EXPERT
Professor Margareta James, Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic (London – Cambridge – Henley)
Undoubtedly, ’being online’ is part of our children’s lives, at home and at school and there are benefits to it. However, as we consider the benefits as adults, we must become more aware of the impact it has on a developing brain of a child – both good and bad. Digital addiction – as it is referred to in the latest research – is an increasing problem for both children and adults. In my job, I see things when they go wrong and when they do, it is very hard to back-track, because by then, the brain is simply on autopilot. So it is always much better to prevent.
As children grow and develop, their brains become ‘landscaped’ by experiences they go through. They learn to understand the world and themselves, and develop skills and coping mechanisms to deal with life’s ups and downs. These changes can be long lasting and impact on their sense of self, their overall wellbeing, academic and career success and relationship skills.
The internet, the media, gaming and television have a huge impact on how children learn to view the world they live in and themselves in it. Most importantly, it impacts on the way they function. Brain scans are telling us that excessive gaming, TV and internet use has a massive impact on brain development. Damages relate to the development of ‘grey matter’ areas like the frontal lobe, responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, planning, organising. Furthermore, studies show that violent games and TV programmes damage brain areas responsible for developing social skills like empathy and compassion – crucial for personal relationships. It also leads to erratic communication within the brain’s cognitive and emotional centres, leading to behaviour problems.
As a result of too much screen time and gaming, children experience sensory overload, lack of sleep driven by their overstimulated nervous system. Limiting screen time and moderating content is hugely useful for children whilst they are developing and physical activities that increase heart rate (running, swimming etc.) are hugely helpful in tackling build up of excess stress hormones in their system. So get them moving! It is all about the balance of their body and mental wellbeing.
Children are pre-disposed for impulsive and risky behaviours because their self control system develops slower than the reward and impulse system, making it much harder for them to make sensible decisions and they will not have control over addictive games.
They need our protection. Their brains are not as efficient as ours.
Children are unique and will benefit or suffer from things they are exposed to to a varying degree. Some of them will cope better than others. What they need is for us to keep an eye on them beyond general guidelines, as they will all respond in their own unique way. The first sign of things going wrong is behaviour change. That is the top of the iceberg, but that is also what we tend to notice with children first. I call it the RED FLAG. Remember, there is no behavioural change without reason and when it comes to screen-time, we have to make decisions for them before it’s too late.
Hero Brown, Editor-in-Chief, Muddy Stilettos
I’m probably the last person you’d expect to say this, given my line of work, but I’m an anti-digital badass. Ask any of my kids (16, 11 and 9) if they’ve been given free rein on gaming and social media they will look at you with flinty resentful eyes – the X-Box, only delivered late last year, is controlled with military precision and banned, sometimes for months at a time if the children are badly behaved. I’ve kept my kids off smart phones for as long as possible – my oldest son had a tiny old ‘brick’ phone (only game? Sudoku!) between the ages of 11-14 while his friends flashed their iphones and snapchatted for hours on end.
But times they are a-changing and I have found that my hard-nosed approach doesn’t work so well as the kids get older and social media has become more deeply embedded in their daily lives.
Case in point – my 11 year old daughter inherited the ‘brick’ phone in September so I could keep in touch with her at her new secondary school, but it was clear by the end of the first term that she wasn’t able to join in the conversations with her new friends. She felt out of the loop and begged for a smart phone. I felt guilty. At Christmas I gave in. Of course, she quickly became stuck to it at all times, so I took it away again for a few days, but banning it outright meant taking away all friendship groups, conversation and basic communication. Instead we came to an arrangement – she is able to have it freely on the weekend while out and about, but at home during the week she puts it immediately away in the kitchen as soon as she comes in – it charges in plain sight.
For my 9 year old, who has inherited the ‘brick’ as his first phone and thankfully is a Sudoku enthusiast (I’m not even kidding), the rules apply to X-Box. With a brother of 16, he’s been an early adopter of Fortnite – yeah yeah *sigh* I know he’s too young – but he’s allowed to play for 2 hours on the weekend after football with his friends, who also all play it. And never, ever in the week.
Teens, well they’re a bit more tricky. My oldest son has to charge his phone overnight in the kitchen too (cue much checking he hasn’t sneaked it into his bedroom at 10pm). He’s crazy about some American football game on the X-Box and likes to simultaneously play that while on his phone which drives me totally INSANE. But holy crap, all kids seem to do this double screening as thoughtlessly and naturally as blinking.
Here’s the thing. Children will always try to break the rules, sneak more time and get one over on you. That’s OK though, it’s part of growing up – I did exactly the same with my Atari (remember those?!). The important thing for me is to have rules that as a parent you are seen to enforce, not because you delight in making your children miserable – though it’s clearly a side benefit! – but because children need boundaries and to understand the importance of moderation. I’m no expert and I don’t always get it right but if I were to offer advice to a friend entering this phase of parenthood I’d say the most important thing is not to give in to the pleading, wheedling, expostulations and sulks, no matter how exhausted you are with the battle. Decide on ‘reasonable’ and fight for it. I’m betting they’ll thank us in the end.