Tuesday 25 April 2017

How to pull your kids out of their Christmas TV and tablet binge

Many children will be feeling the effects of a Christmas tech binge, but there are ways to get back on track, writes Kathy Donaghy

Mum-of-three Aisling Ozdemir from Ashbourne, Co Meath
Mum-of-three Aisling Ozdemir from Ashbourne, Co Meath

Stressed out, anxious and unable to unwind after a day spent in front of screens - and that's just the kids. By now the Christmas technology binge may be making many parents feel like a major digital detox is the only way to get their child's attention again.

With a dizzying array of devices delivered in time for Christmas, lots of parents are facing into the New Year with big challenges around how to peel their kids away from technology to do something other than look at screens.

But with recent figures indicating that Irish adults are the biggest phone internet users in the Western world, what chance do kids have to unplug their brains if their parents have so much difficulty in being separated from their smartphone? And with technology penetrating so many aspects of modern life, once you have opened your child's eyes to what's inside Pandora's box, can you reasonably expect to be able to close them again?

At this stage parents know that technology poses at least some threats to children. Recently the American Academy of Paediatrics released a study that said while digital and social media can help early learning, they also come with a host of risks including negative effects on sleep, attention and learning along with a higher incidence of obesity and depression. The group recommended that parents develop a family media use plan.

Mum-of-three Aisling Ozdemir from Ashbourne, Co Meath, has tried her own version of a media use plan but it didn't work, and the wall chart she'd made was quickly consigned to the bin.

Her eldest son Conall (9) has Asperger's syndrome and ADHD, and she says technology is a huge part of his life. She says plans go out the window when you have a child with special needs who understands the world better when he's plugged in.

While her other two boys Rian (4) and Koray (5) have limited interest in technology, Aisling believes Conall would happily spend his every waking hour on some form of technology. "If he had his way he would turn on technology first thing in the morning. I can't even explain the battle it is to regulate that," she says.

Conall got an Xbox 360 console a few years ago but the most up-to-date version was on the Santa list this year. "It may sound indulgent but it's a very tricky situation. His world is computers - he may be the next Bill Gates! I think they will be a major part of his life," she says.

"I have to give him warnings to get off devices - I'll warn him with 10 minutes to go and then five minutes. I have to make allowances - Conall is not social but he navigates the world of computers really well. The other two are not like that at all. They like playing with their Lego and they're more into imaginative play like dressing up in superhero costumes," adds Aisling.

One of the advantages of technology for Aisling is that it allows her to have individual time with her boys before bedtime. "I might put on an episode of something for them and that gives me one on one time with each of them before bed. What we are doing is not perfect - I'm not perfect and I have to improve but I say 'I'll get through today and tomorrow I'll think about it'. I suppose I'm just winging it," she says.

Clinical psychologist and mum-of-three Sarah O'Doherty says while parents do need to set boundaries around how much time kids are plugged into devices, they also needed to be a little bit flexible.

"It's really about balance - it can't be all about the computer game. Children are not good at knowing how much is enough or when is a good time to stop. Adults have a role in children's lives. I would say to parents, trust your instincts about what is reasonable for your child.

"I think parents need to know what kind of online access the device gives the child. For example if they're on a PlayStation, who are they going to be in contact with? It's a case of start as you mean to go on. Put in the ground work, know what they are doing and put in all the safety around internet accessibility," she says.

Father-of-two Darren Brooks says the key thing for parents is to start as they mean to go on and this means sticking to your rules around technology. His two sons Dylan (14) and Liam (7) know exactly what the boundaries are and understand that 'no means no'.

His eldest son Dylan got a phone 18 months ago, but Darren says one of the stipulations was that he and his wife Jodi could check the phone at any time randomly to see how it was being used. The family also subscribed to a software company called Secure Teen, which helps keep an eye on all internet activity on the mobile phone.

Darren, who works for Concern Worldwide and blogs at Diary of a Working Dad, says parents must have passwords to their children's accounts like Facebook and other social media sites.

"Monday to Friday, devices are off limits. They are only used at the weekends when school is out. It's the same with PlayStation and games consoles. We did impose a six-month ban on Dylan once because he lost his temper when playing a game. If you are going to put down a punishment, I would say you have to stick to it," says Darren.

One of the big issues around technology use is its effect on children's sleep. Dr Grace O'Malley, clinical Specialist physiotherapist at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, says there is a growing body of research into how much technology is disturbing children's sleep, an essential part of a growing young person's day.

Some of the children she sees in the hospital have developed shoulder flexibility problems and neck problems as a result of slumping in chairs looking at devices and Dr O'Malley warns that parents have to be aware of how much time their children are spending on screens.

"There needs to be times during the day when nobody in the family is on a screen, particularly when they are eating. There should be rules for everyone, including the parents," she says.

According to Galway-based internet safety expert Jeremy Pagden, a good rule of thumb is absolutely no social media for a child under the age of 13.

And he says the best advice for parents is to keep smartphones away from their kids for as long as possible.

Pagden - whose company schoolswebsites.ie designs web technology for schools and provides safety advice on technology and cyber bullying for parents, schools and teachers - says parents must keep control over online data by limiting their child's device to Wi-Fi so they can turn it off.

"If children have got devices for Christmas, the cardinal rule is to put in place some rules around their usage. They should never be allowed to use them in their bedroom, for example," he says.

"Kids will manipulate parents like crazy, but if parents stick to the rules when kids are younger, when they get to their teens and they are more vulnerable to things like cyber-bullying these rules will have become habits that they abide by."

Irish Independent

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