Our role as parents is to help children navigate the complex media landscape and have a positive experience in this digital age. If we are open to the changes and keep the lines of communication open, we can help children avoid the pitfalls and enjoy the best of what technology offers.
The guidelines for healthy screen use are simple – no more than one hour a day for preschoolers and no more than two hours a day for school age children up to 18 years old. However, according to the Raising Children Network, the average young person in Australia consumes almost five hours of media in a typical day. This includes television, internet, computer games, videos and mobile phones. Quirky Kid Clinic principal child psychologist Kimberley O’Brien says physical exercise and time outdoors is much more important than screen time. She says children who stay up late and have unmonitored social networking time don’t perform as well in the classroom and then have social issues at school.
“When you look at kids that do a lot more outdoor activities than socialising online, they look physically healthier, they have more energy and they’re more socially confident,” she says.
Kimberley advises parents to be on the same page first and to set a good example with their own use of digital technology before having a family meeting to set agreed limits. She advises parents to be prepared and to think about what the desired screen time for their children might be, whether it will be before or after school and how that might fit into the family’s routine.
Some parents may lock their kids out of all internet access during the week and then allow a little internet time on the weekend. Others will allow internet access for the household between 7pm and 9pm and then switch it off.
“Negotiate a little bit with the kids when they are, say, 10 and above, but otherwise setting limits and expectations of what they won’t be doing during their time is better than discovering it at a later date,” she says.
Most modern families couldn’t imagine life without a television, but when mother-of-two Grace moved from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast with her family two years ago, she and her husband opted to go without a television in their new house. Prior to the move, Grace often used the television as a babysitter for the children, but she realised that this had to change.
“It seemed like watching television ate into so much time that could be spent doing something that was more wholesome and beneficial for every person in the family and every relationship in the family,” she says.
The children, who were both under five, initially went through a phase of not knowing what to do and they had to learn how to play together without conflict. “For the first eight weeks it was really tough, because I didn’t know how to parent without a television,” Grace admits.
The television was later set up in a tin shed on the property, with strict rules regarding usage. The kids, who are now aged six and five, watch less than 20 minutes of television per day during the week and about an hour a day on the weekends.
Instead of relying on screens, the children have Lego and a craft table, and they make their own fun with role-play and imaginative games. They enjoy an old-fashioned childhood on their acreage property, with lots of outdoor play and very little technology in their lives.
Removing the television from the house has been beneficial for the whole family, and Grace says their communication has improved. They talk to each other more instead of “just plonking down in front of the telly”.
Grace understands that the time will come when she will have to relax the rules and not shelter her children from technology, but she says that time will be later. For now, minimal screen time at home, coupled with educational technology use at school, is sufficient for this family.
“In relation to other technology, I just don’t see at the moment that they have a need for it,” she says. “We don’t have lots of money to splash around and I don’t parent out of guilt. They don’t need that to make me feel like I’m a good parent.”
Kimberley advises parents to put messages about cyber safety in place early, when children are at primary school. The parent and child should explore some of the different social networking sites together that the child may be interested in. If children are well informed, they will be better equipped to manage any issues when they get online.
The legal age for some social network services is 13, however children as young as 8 are using social networks such as YouTube and Facebook. This is worrying, because underage users don’t have the skills or life experience to manage the risks.
Kimberley advises parents to stick to the minimum age guidelines for Facebook. She says that if the rules are bent for social networking, then it’s likely that everything else will have to be negotiated from that point onward.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reports that children aged 8 to 11 mainly use social network sites to play games, while children aged 12 to 17 will post comments, send private or public messages, post status updates or group chat.
According to the ACMA, the most common risky behaviour for children online is looking for new friends or adding unknown people to their friends list or address book. This can result in online chats or sharing photos and videos with someone they have never met face-to-face.
Proper supervision of young children will help prevent risky behaviours and exposure to unsafe material. Kimberley says that there can be issues when there is inadequate parental supervision, and she recommends restricting any screen use to the public space such as the lounge room.
She warns that there are risks for young children who use unsupervised social media in the bedroom and this needs to be taken seriously by parents. She cites an example of an eight-year-old girl who was approached and coerced by an online predator while she was using an iPad in her room.
“It’s exposing kids to something that they don’t need to be exposed to and they shouldn’t be exposed to,” Kimberley says. “We’re supposed to be forward-thinking parents and have kids that are techno-savvy, but it’s so important not to let that slide and not to be too relaxed about it.”
There are new challenges for parents as they help teens navigate through the complicated world of social media. Sunshine Coast mum Simone says it’s important to communicate with your kids about social media as much as possible, to show them that you’re interested and to be there for them if an issue arises.
“I've always been fairly social media savvy, so I was one of those naughty parents who allowed them to have Facebook pages and Instagram from a fairly young age. I'm glad I did though, as the novelty has worn off in a sense, and I set the rules very early,” says Simone. “Even now, I have all passwords and am able to log in any time I feel the need. Every so often I do that, and it's no secret to them. I don't read through messages or anything, but I do scan through who they are talking to.”
Simone advises parents to keep up to date with new platforms so they can teach kids acceptable online behaviour. Her three daughters, aged 16, 15 and 14, have learned social media etiquette and they understand that what goes online stays online.
“My kids often show me what other kids have posted, and it shocks them,” she says. “My kids will still ask me before they post a photo, to make sure it's 'social media appropriate'. But there are definitely more concerns as new platforms arise.”
The girls’ internet usage has increased with age, however, and Simone says they now have more purpose. They each have a computer, iPad and Smartphone, which they use for a range of activities, including creative projects and online tutorials.
“My eldest two are very interested in make-up and fashion, and often use their iPads to learn new techniques and will follow it step-by-step. My eldest also loves writing and has her own blog. My youngest has taught herself to play the guitar and keyboard from doing iPad tutorials,” she says. “My kids have made some fantastic film and photo projects, learned music, and they're able to take their passions to the next level, like blogging and learning.”
Simone says there is no point in banning social media, because there are too many ways kids can access it.
“Over the years, we've had kids visit our home, and the ones who aren't allowed social media are the ones wanting to spend the entire time on the computer,” she says. “When parents turn their heads and think their kids aren't using social media, there is no control and no opportunity to teach them what is appropriate and what isn't.”
When children have a bad experience online, research has found that parents are the main source of advice and support. Up to three quarters of 12- to 17-year-olds have talked to their parents about how to stay safe online, according to the 2013 ACMA report Like, post, share: Young Australians’ experience of social media.
Simone says exclusion and cyber bullying are big issues for teens using electronic media. All three of her daughters have been excluded from events at various times. Her daughter was sad at recently being excluded from a party and was reduced to tears when she later received Snapchat messages from people at the event. Simone sees this as a form of cyber bullying.
While social media has its downside, it also has benefits. Simone believes if parents learned more about it and understood it a little more, there wouldn't be as many issues. She says that like anything in life, kids need our guidance with what is acceptable behaviour.
“Talk and talk and talk to your kids and don't stick your head in the sand,” she says. “Help them learn, and you can learn at the same time. Technology is part of the future and it’s not going away.”
While it’s easy to home in on the fear factor, child psychologist Kimberley says there are a lot of positives to the internet that parents and children can celebrate together.
“Parents can help kids to be really well informed and be excited about the benefits of the new technologies,” Kimberley says. “When you look at all the dangers, it’s easier for parents to just shut down and turn it off and say, 'No, we’ll limit the access', but then I know there are a lot of benefits that go along with it.”
Children learn how to be active researchers; they can look information up on the spot and find answers to anything they need to know. They can talk to family on Skype, connect with friends, send photos and do all sorts of amazing things that expand their social network and sense of community. Kimberley says the screen time just has to be managed.
She advises parents to dedicate time each week to exploring the media with their children, and to use the opportunity to build the parent-child relationship as children enter early adolescence and beyond. She says if parents have a close relationship with their child, then if there is anything unusual, the child can ask.
“If you leave it too late then you might be pushed out of that opportunity. The kids will say, 'No, I don’t want you sitting with me.' So you have to start early and enjoy exploring together,” says Kimberley.