Parenting

How to put your children on a digital diet

It’s the all too common lament of parents during the holidays. From the moment they wake, our children’s default setting is to get on a screen. To make us feel worse, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, has warned that our children’s insatiable consumption of social media is as bad as letting them gorge on junk food.

“None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time — double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal,” she says. “For those same reasons, we shouldn’t want our children to do the same with their online time.”

Our children’s insatiable consumption of social media is as bad as letting them gorge on junk food

Yet Robert Hannigan, the former director of GCHQ, says screen time may not be as bad as we fear. “If you appear to be spending your holiday unsuccessfully attempting to separate your children from wifi or their digital devices, do not despair,” he says. “Your poor parenting may be helping them and saving the country.” As he points out, we need future spies with cyberskills who are digitally literate.

So how are parents supposed to proceed? Longfield says we should look at our children’s screen time as we might their diets. Just as we make them eat their five a day we should also make sure that their use of screens is healthy.

Limit their use to shorter stretches
Dr Larry Rosen, psychology professor at California State University and the co-author of The Distracted Mind, says that it is more important to limit the stretches of time that children spend on technology, rather than to worry about how long they spend on screens every day in total. Frequent breaks stop their brains from becoming too over-stimulated and will help to combat technology’s addictive quality. The idea is to reach a point where they can switch off without stress. For children up to ten, he recommends (brace yourself) a limit of 40 minutes, then an hour’s break. In pre-teen years, that goes up to an hour. Then an hour off. “An hour on, an hour off. That helps to train their brain to know when it’s time to stop. For teenagers an hour and a half, max. Then kids should be off for an hour.”

Put in penalties if they overrun 
Give children a five-minute warning when they need to get off a screen and set up a behavioural contract, Rosen suggests. If the child doesn’t switch off then, they lose screen time next time. “But if they do set their devices down when the bell rings, they start accumulating extra time,” he says. “Fifteen minutes is a good amount. Those bonuses accrue, they can get an extra hour and they feel like they’ve won.”

Avoid reward binges and unlimited weekend time
If they’ve climbed hills, visited museums, fed the cat, been model citizens all week, surely we can permit a reward binge? Actually, no. Elaine Halligan, the London director of The Parent Practice, says: “If they’ve had a splurge one afternoon, they’re going to ask for it again and again. Likewise the approach of no screens all week and unlimited use at the weekend doesn’t teach moderation, and makes it harder for children to develop good habits. If their time is unlimited, they become so wired that they can’t detach.

Engage in their on-screen world
Not all screen time is worthless. Children often connect, are creative and mindful online. Dr Richard Graham, a technology addiction specialist, says that balance is essential. “It’s not that everything screen-based is bad, it’s making sure that you’re not playing that same game, same video, being inactive or passive, soaking up media with very little participation.”

Halligan says that you should talk about their favourite TV programmes, games and websites and become involved. “If their children are gaming, we encourage parents to spend half an hour on it with them. Look at the sites they’re looking at on YouTube. If we don’t, it means we don’t understand their daily lives.”

Get them to write a list of non-screen activities 
Discovering who you are is key to building good mental health, but turning on a screen on doesn’t enable children to broaden their sense of self, says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a child development specialist and author of Talking to Tweenies. To help children to access their creativity and self-determination, she suggests that “each child writes their own ‘boredom buster list’, the kinds of things they’d like to do when they’re not allowed to pick up a screen”. Rosen suggests putting the list on the refrigerator. When it’s time to put down the iPad, the list takes the burden off parents. “You don’t say, ‘What are you going to do?’ You say, ‘Go pick something off the list.’ If they say, ‘There’s nothing on the list’, you say, ‘Let’s add to the list.’ ”

Have a strategy to lure them into nature
Graham says that physicality and the outdoors are “splendidly immersive”, even for a sulky teenager who doesn’t want to go out. “But to say, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ will not engage.” Have a lure, be it a swim in a pond, crabbing, tree-climbing. “Even starting the journey of getting out with, ‘We’re going to play hide and seek in a wood’ has a bit more gamification attached to it than walks and ice creams.” The holy grail, he says, is a camping trip (so much to do, bad reception).

Send them off with friends and family
Your children are more likely to suffer a screen-free day with grandma or auntie than with you, so ask. As Halligan says: “All children are hard-wired to get attention. When grandparents, godparents and good family friends take the children out, they give them undivided attention. Remove a sibling from the situation, and it’s a recipe for success. You’ll often find that your mother will report back that your child has been an angel.”

Think about how you interact with your kids
“It’s important to make regular time to get together with your children and talk,” Halligan says. “But most parents talk about table manners and homework. That’s not conversation.” Likewise, barking “read a book!” is popular, but futile. Halligan says read to them yourself, if they rarely read alone, perhaps a book from a film they have enjoyed. Or if you have got chores to do, encourage them to get involved — to help to make lunch, lay the table, or empty the dishwasher. Our children should be doing daily chores without payment, she says. “It’s about teaching children that they can make a contribution to home life. They feel an important part of the household.”

Use screens to inspire off-screen activity
Use the wealth of the digital world to help to direct their interests. Even a working parent can spare 30 minutes to find an art project online, watch it with their child and begin a project, Halligan says. Or, she suggests, watch programmes on cooking, DIY or gardening, and see what inspires them. “WatchBake Off and suddenly you’ll find your ten-year-old is in the kitchen baking cakes for you.”