In the past 20 years the use of technology has invaded family life. Whereas previously there was only the TV to contend with, now we have the internet, video games and smart phones all interrupting family life. When I first started clinical work with families, the number one battle for parents was to get their children to come home on time, now parents battle to get their children out of the house into the fresh air (and to leave the screens behind).
While technology has given us incredible ways to communicate with others, it has also interrupted our communication with our nearest and dearest. If you were to visit an average family home these days you might find Mum on social media, Dad checking emails, the daughter reviewing YouTube videos and the son watching live-streamed videos – no one is talking to each another and all the attention is on the virtual world.
A growing reason for couples seeking marriage counselling are related to screens, whether this is an addiction to pornography or social media, online affairs or simply couples spending more time online and less time communicating with each other.
As well as the dangers of cyber-bullying and the addictive nature of the internet, the excessive use of screens are associated with poor health and sleeping habits.
In my clinical practice, I have come across many teenagers who use the internet throughout the night (often not known by their parents). I remember one girl who would wake several times a night to check if there were any further “likes” to one of her posts on social media. This constant checking of social media or being online all the time is driven by a normal teenage desire to fit in but, amplified on social media, it leads to increased anxiety, poorer concentration and interrupted sleep.
In addition, teenagers, especially boys, are accessing pornography at younger and younger ages (some from the age of 10) and there is evidence that this is distorting their normal sexual development with a growing number becoming addicted in early adulthood, wreaking havoc with their ability to form healthy relationships.
Given the highly immersive and engaging nature of the internet and social media, it is hard for real world healthy activities such as sport, home projects or even walking in nature to get a look in. Even doing homework is made more complicated now that a lot of it is completed online, when alluring, distracting online material is just two finger clicks away.
Remember that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Twitter have no interest in your children’s improved concentration or long-term health; they simply want to lure them back to log in as frequently as possible.
So, how can you respond as a parent to all these challenges?
How can you be proactive and take steps to help your children and teenagers be safe online and to use technology responsibly? Below are some ideas.
Join in and understand your children’s technology
The first step is not to see technology as “all bad”. Take time to get to know your children’s technology and encourage the positive educational and entertainment aspects. Indeed, technology can be a source of connection between you and your children. Joining them to play some of their video games or using shared social media email and texting can be an important way to stay connected with them as they get older.
Adopt a gradual approach
When your children start using technology it is best to adopt a gradual step-by-step approach based on trust and your child’s age. Start conservatively, and slowly give them access.
When children are young, all internet use should be supervised directly by parents and the child should not know passwords.
As they get older, children can be allowed some time unsupervised, but parents should check their history, know passwords and install appropriate safety software, and so on.
Children should gain access to new technology (like a social media account) only once they have discussed safety and learned about the platform together with their parents.
Create technology-free times and zones
Make sure to limit technology in the home and to set aside times and places when only real world activities and conversations are allowed. For example, you might set family rules such as:
- No phones in bedrooms after 7pm (to ensure a good night's sleep).
- No technology at mealtimes (to allow time for family talking).
- One hour screen time during weekdays (to allow time for homework and sport).
- Agree that notifications are turned off on phones and social media is checked only a few times a day.
- Have a social media free day such as Sunday when you have family events.
Talk through safety with a child before you introduce a new technology. Go through any potential issues together and ask questions, such as:
How can you ensure you are safe online? What would you do if someone spoke negatively about you online? How can you make sure your phone use is not addictive?
As children become older teenagers they will be responsible for their own technology use, but it is important that you continue to talk to them about safety and responsible usage. Discuss the current dangers and challenges (which are constantly changing) and how they can can manage these.
Negotiate with your children
Listen to your child’s wishes about technology and give them choices. For example, the rule might be that they have a set amount of screen time (for example, 30 minutes) each day of the week, but they can choose when this happens. Children may be allowed more time once they show they are responsible, complete their homework and chores. It is perfectly appropriate to communicate to children that technology is a privilege rather than an entitlement dependent on good behaviour and co-operation (and which can be removed if children don’t keep rules).
Take time to change habits
Many parents are in a situation where poor technology habits have become the norm in the home (TV on all the time, eating in front of screens, phones in the bedroom) and they want to change this. In these situations, take time to negotiate these changes with your children and then gradually work towards them. For example, you might start a conversation saying: “I am worried that there is too much phone and tablet use in the house. It is interfering with homework and time with the family. We need to agree a better routine around this. What do you think?”
Part 1: Bringing up happy, healthy children
Part 2: Replacing bad habits with good ones
Part 3: Importance of mealtimes together
Part 4: Screens and technology in the home
Part 5: Getting enough sleep and rest
Part 6: Quality of our familial relationships
– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is a co-developer with Dr Adele Keating of the Parents Plus Healthy Families Programme. See parentsplus.ie and solutiontalk.ie for details