Technology and how we can protect our children’s wellbeing

[Thanks to Parentshop for allowing us to publish this article]

When we teach our courses on young people and technology, I refer to the internet as an “invited guest, not an assumed resident”. This ultimately means that we may not be able to control what happens “out there” on the net, but we can control what happens under our roof and we should because it has big implications for our efforts to protect our children’s mental well-being. Increasingly we are finding out that their well-being is affected if we don’t take steps to manage our children’s screen-time: use of mobile phones, internet access (including Facebook) and the way they use technology.

There are some big ticket items that affect our children’s well-being when we don’t manage their online behaviour. While the internet should not be seen as the bogeyman here – there are many fantastic features to it – like education, communication, entertainment and online communities – there are also effects that are detrimental which require us to be engaged in their use of it.

Technology can affect their well-being in the following ways:

  • Lack of sleep and downtime to help their minds recuperate
  • Ways in which the internet depersonalises children’s relationships
  • The digital footprint that unknowingly set down by children and young people which, in turn affects our children’s futures.

Sleep is important for normal functioning

We all require minimal amounts of sleep to function properly. This means that for their healthy development and ability to cope at school and not be on knife’s edge, which is what a bad night’s sleep does to us, children need to get to bed on time and to develop a “going-to-sleep” routine that will help them get proper rest.

Teenagers need, on average, nine hours sleep a night. That means that if they are getting up at 7.00am to get ready for school, they need to be in bed at 10.00pm most nights. If we need an hour’s time away from screens (not including TVs which emit a different light) for melatonin to drop down to help us go off to sleep then, teenagers should be off their screens – phones, laptops and ipads by 9.00pm. How often do you think this is happening around our country? Not much according to some experts who say that the vast majority of teenagers are only getting less than 7 hours sleep per night. Lack of sleep, as we know, results in our children feeling irritable, grumpy and foggy-headed for learning. So, if I was to give a major reason to get involved in your kids’ screen time it would be to see that they get the right amount of sleep. If you want to find out some more information on this topic there a lot available on ‘sleep hygiene’ on the internet.

The internet environment depersonalises the way people communicate

When we don’t see someone else or don’t have a relationship with them, it is easier to be harsh on them. In recent years, much has been made about how the major problem on the internet is prevalence of predators and how we should be trying our utmost to protect our children from online predators. While there are instances of this problem on the net, there are two thoughts I will share with you: most young people are pretty savvy when it comes to weird people trying to lure them into bad scenes. The second thought I have is this: the major problem on the net for children and young people – is not predators – but the way young people treat each other. Bullying, insulting-one-another and destructive relationships are a much bigger problem than online predators. There’s two ways to approach this problem: first help your children to know ways to protect themselves from bullying. Help them to know it is okay to show you messages they don’t feel good about and, that’s it’s not always smart to behave in kind, by insulting back. The other message that is worth noting is that it’s important to help children develop some rules of thumb for posting messages on the internet such as, “If you wouldn’t say it to your Nonna, don’t send it” and “Sleep on it – see if you feel the same way in the morning”, before you send anything you might regret.

Laying down a digital footprint can be ruinous to one’s reputation

Many kids don’t think about the consequences of their behaviour not because they are just being reckless, but because the part of their long range forecasting ability is still being built in their brains. That means that they can and will post things online that they might later regret. These days more and more bosses and institutions are looking at kids’ Facebook pages and their internet histories before employing someone. While it will take me a while to know why many young people live such public lives in the internet rather than taking appropriate pride in their privacy, I am also convinced we can help them to protect themselves from themselves by assisting them to set up appropriate privacy settings on Facebook (which is so easy to do – just go to privacy setting and click-on friends only) and by installing basic internet filters to stop our children going to inappropriate websites which can distort their view of relationships (violent and pornographic websites) and encourage self-destruction (anorexia and suicide sites). There’s some free filters around – one being K-9 for example – which are easy to download and are easy to set-up. These can help you get control of “the guest”, and can prevent damage from forming in the first place.

The big strong message here about technology is to protect our children while they live with you, for as long as possible. That means remaining vigilant, not anxiously vigilant, but enough to help them live a balanced life where the internet is of benefit to them and a part of a balance of activities that they do. Any more than two hours online a day is probably too much in my books but that is probably an individual preference. We actually don’t yet know what the effects of more use than this is having on children’s development, but what we do know is that their internet usage – including the use of phones – should not be at the expense of them sleeping properly, learning at school, enjoying face-to-face time with their friends and family and helping them to lead balanced and healthy lives.

Michael Hawton, MAPS