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Searching online for advice on kids and tech returns loads of articles about “The Dangers of Tech,” “How to Regulate Your Kids Online,” and “How to Limit Your Kids’ Tech Use.” Parents want to protect kids and make sure they are safe, but is it right that we start with the negative view of technology? 

The benefits of tech are many—we take basic tasks such as paying bills, shopping for groceries or learning online how to do something we don’t know how to do for granted every day. But being connected for all these activities equals screen time! 

You probably spend many of your 8 hours at work on a laptop, using your mobile, connected to the internet. Then you come home, read recipes off your tablet while you cook, then watch Netflix while casually scrolling through your social media. At night Hive turns your lights out while you chill in bed with your Kindle. How come we don’t worry about adult use of tech in the same way we do with children? 

There are lots of amazing reasons for kids to use technology—in class, many kids learn with tablets and smart whiteboards, they research facts, they watch tutorials, collaborate with others, build relationships. They gain new skills, play and have fun, and use creative skills. All of these involve a certain amount of screen time, the biggest debate (and concern) for parents in recent years. Can we reframe this issue so we worry less about time spent, but concentrate on helping make kids’ use of tech more meaningful?

On his “Playable” blog, Dean Groom, an Australian academic who investigates how families negotiate video games and game cultures, talks about the four ways kids interact with tech—passive consumption, interactive consumption, communication, and creation. He goes further; “In school, I’d argue that very few children would conceptualize their use of technology in the classroom in any of the four, but instead tend to describe themselves as ‘doing work on the laptop’ or ‘going on Google Docs’ meaning that they still don’t connect the activities they are directed (required) to do at school with any of the things they would choose to do if left to their devices.” 

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Groom is convinced that ‘screen time’ is just “a term used to demonize children’s use of technology by a cadre of adults including parents and teachers who, for their own reasons prefer children simply did what children are ‘supposed to do’ with technology.”

Kids need to have fun and to play, spend time with their friends. Technology gives them the opportunity to do all these things—sometimes at the same time. In a recent survey of U.S. teens, the majority (72%) said they played for the fun of it, over half (51%) said playing online helped them relax when they were stressed out or upset, and for over a third (34%) online is where their offline and school friends are, so it’s an opportunity to meet and play. They also need to learn, and many games involve creation or basic coding skills. Think broadcasting on a video platform is easy? It also entails production, editing and presenting, not just staring at a camera and talking.

One of the top experts on children and media—“Mediatrician” Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School—summarises it perfectly:

“Screen time has become an obsolete concept in an era where we are surrounded by screens and move seamlessly between the digital and the physical to use them in virtually all human endeavors—learning, interacting, creating, having fun. It is how we choose to use screens and to pursue non-screen activities, it is the content we consume on screens and the contexts in which we consume it that affects our well-being.”

In today’s realities, the important role for parents to play is helping young people choose meaningful screen time that involves learning and creation, helping them understand that technology is a tool, rather than an extension of themselves. Parents can also encourage kids to find balance and build a healthy relationship with tech. A sign of an unhealthy relationship, for example, is not taking physical care of themselves—not eating or drinking while glued to the screen for hours, or consistently choosing technology over family dinners and personal interactions. 

Most importantly, parents are role models whose habits kids will mirror, so here are a few DO’s and DON’Ts for parents to keep in mind:

DO:

  • Set a timetable for different activities to ensure a good balance of work and playtime.

  • Limit checking social media accounts to a couple of times per day (with a set time limit per check)—this should help avoid endless scrolling through posts.

  • Put your phone down at dinner time if you expect kids to do so, but also remember that their screen time is no different than your Netflix time, all in moderation!

  • Buy an alarm clock (so there’s no excuse to keep your phone next to your bed as an alarm) and set a firm “no phones at bedtime” rule that includes parents.

  • Consider adopting a family contract with additional agreements that kids might contribute to.

DON’T:

  • Constantly check social media accounts (and if you see kids doing that explain why follower numbers, likes, retweets or shares don’t validate a person and aren’t worth chasing).

  • Scroll unconsciously through platforms.

  • Check your phone late at night or wake up to check messages.