Unplug Your Kids

Berkhamsted and Tring Living Magazines Teenager on iPad

Are you worried about how long your kids spend online? Here’s how to disconnect to reconnect.

Picture the scene; you’re sitting down to dinner with your family for a lovely catch-up at the end of a long day. You  turn to your loved ones only to be greeted with a wall of people staring at their phones, engrossed in an online conversation, a game or scrolling mindlessly through social media. According to recent research by Ofcom, 99% of 12 to 15 year-olds spend almost 21 hours a week online – and parents are finding it increasingly difficult to control their children’s screen time.

Of course we all love our phones, iPads and games consoles – and technology certainly has a place in both society and family life. But do you ever wish you could have your children back in the room with you, and away from the evermore-enticing online world for a few more hours every week?

You’re not alone.

Here are some expert tips for controlling your children’s screen time – without causing world war three!

The problem

Technology itself is not a problem. It plays an essential part in everyday life, and has made a whole host of things so much easier – and more fun!

But it most definitely has its place – and increasingly, parents are finding it harder and harder to get their children to step away from consoles, tablets and smartphones and reconnect with the real world, including their families.

‘There are several issues with spending too much time staring at a screen, particularly for a child,’ explains Berkhamsted-based child, teen and parent coach Beth Parmar.

‘Firstly, the flashing lights and moving images provide constant stimulation for their brain, which can be addictive,  and can also affect their mood and concentration for the rest of the day.

‘Secondly, if they’re online or playing a game, they’re not interacting with people. Online interaction is not fulfilling the same emotional need as face-to-face interaction.’

As children get older and are out of the house more, policing it can seem like a minefield. But there are solutions, whatever their ageage – we hope some of them work for you.

Transition time

Most parents don’t understand the difference between a child’s brain and an adult’s brain. Adults find it easy to switch from one thing to another – whether it’s from a noisy, fast-paced computer game to helping with homework, or from listening to loud music to a serious conversation, it’s something that adults are able to do. But children’s brains are still developing, and they simply don’t have that ability to just switch. This means they need time to transition from one thing to the next.

‘There’s no point in telling your kids to get off the Xbox or the iPad and go straight and do their homework,’ says Beth. ‘It’s impossible for their brain to switch from being over-stimulated to settling down to something immediately.‘

Make sure you get them to think about something else for 10 or 15 minutes before asking them to do anything –  whether it’s something physical like playing with Lego, running round the garden with a football, or just telling them jokes and making them laugh – as long as it’s taking their mind away from the game they were playing, it will help smooth the transition.’

Decide on limits together

If you tell children how long they have on their screens, they’ll almost always fight against it. But if you sit and talk it  through with them and get them involved in the decision process, they’re much more likely to be compliant and you’ll end up with an agreement you’re both happy with.

‘Ask them how many hours a day they think is reasonable for them to be on their screens,’ suggests Beth. ‘They may start off by saying something silly like 10 hours, but if you talk it through with them, listen to their reasons and then explain your own, they’re more likely to realise that they still need to find time to do their homework, their sports clubs or whatever it is they like doing, and that, actually, much less time is more reasonable and sensible. That way, you’re much less likely to have a battle on your hands.’

It’s just as important for older children as well, who may not be in the house for you to keep an eye on as much. ‘Rather than agreeing time limits, maybe you could suggest that, if they have a smartphone, they must agree to have the ‘Find my friend’ app so you can keep track of them if you need to, or that they have to check in with a family WhatsApp group in case you need them. Whatever works for you – just remember that technology can be your friend!’

Reward, don’t punish

Threatening to take away their screen time as a punishment for bad behaviour can be a recipe for disaster because, as Beth explains, if you use it this way, then it means they’ll see screen time as a given, rather than the treat it is.

‘Instead of using screen time as a punishment, flip it on its head and get them to earn their time. So whatever it is you want them to do, be it chores,their homework, instrument practice or anything else, make sure it’s clear to them what you expect, and only when it’s completed do they earn an agreed amount of screen time.

‘By treating it like a currency, you’re getting them to understand that it’s a privilege, not a right, and that things have to be worked for, just like money. That makes for easier parenting all round.’

Congratulate them!

It might sound silly, but positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool. We’re all too quick to criticise our children for not doing the things they should, but we often forget to praise them when they do good things.

‘Just saying ‘well done’ if they’ve put their iPad or Xbox away when agreed and without a fuss goes a long way to helping them realise that you do notice when they do things right, and not always when they do things wrong – and that can make them want to do that more often,’ explains Beth.

Lead by example

You can’t expect kids to be willing to switch off their phones or tablets if they see you constantly staring at yours, so it’s important to show them that you don’t need them all the time.

‘Try not to spend hours staring at your phone mindlessly in front of them. It can also be a good idea to agree that, for example, you don’t allow phones at the table, or have a phone-free hour every day. If you can agree it between you and be consistent and stick to it – adults included – then it’s far more likely to work.’

For more information and help go to www.bethparmar.co.uk or call 07775 565220.