Hello and welcome to another article, this time I want to share with you a very hot topic: children and technology
I must admit I have been putting this back in my list of articles. In my conversation with parents and children it is almost as controversial a topic as homework. Also, on a personal level, I wasn’t sure if I was getting it right for either my daughters or myself. This was until a few things happened and the result and feedback encouraged me to go ahead and share my experiences and strategies with you.
There is another reason for me to write this article: I have seen parents taking two strategies to deal with children and technology and neither of them works in the long term.
Option 1: very limited or no technology policy
Option 2: let them regulate themselves, as long as their work is done it’s ok.
If you are in one of those approaches, I truly wish you the best. If you can make it work, let me know.
Let me start narrating what a 15 years old told me.
“Javier, I wake up at 7, and from the very first minute, I am tense. I know I have a long day ahead of me. I go to school thinking about if I got my homework right, if I will get caught by a teacher doing something I shouldn’t, or maybe they think I am doing something I shouldn’t. I must put all my attention into lessons because it is an important year. All through the day in school, I feel under pressure. When I get home, I am mentally tired, and yet I have two or three hours of homework to do. The only way for me to let some steam out is with the Xbox. I play mostly fortnight because it’s quick, and I am good at it. If I don’t do well, I can have another short game. I evade myself; it is fun and I can do well. There are no expectations. Then, I realise I have wasted an hour or two and now it is late, I am more tired than before and less able to concentrate, yet I have to do the homework, my tension is off the scale. My mum comes and tells me off, I know she is right, but I can’t accept it. She is the one putting pressure on me. Well, she is not always doing it, but my problem is the same. At this point, I am only panicking.” This is often a problem with children and technology as a means of procrastination. I mention tips for motivating kids for homework in a previous article you can read it here.
I don’t want to sound scaremongering. Of course, there are thousands of children who play games and use technology that doesn’t go through this process. However, as a dad/mum, do you want to take your chances?
Now, let me give you another very different example about children and technology.
Lola is a very articulated, charming 10 years old girl. All her school friends have an iPad, they use it in school and most of them are creating groups to text each other or play. She is fuming because her mum has a no-technology policy. This is what she says to me:
“Mr Orti, I don’t get it. I am the only one. I thought there were two or three more in my class, but everybody has the iPad, they are sending themselves messages, I am totally excluded. I must make up excuses to not give them my email or details. I tell them my iPad is being repaired because I am so ashamed of being the only one. They all can do whatever they want. I have all this rules and policies that my mum says, and I am very upset and angry. It is not fair; I am the only one. Everybody else has their iPads”
You can think the two examples of children and technology are very different (a boy, a girl, ipad, Xbox, texting, playing, talking with friends, evasion from pressure) and you are right. However, you would be missing the role that technology has in those kids lives. And that role is the same.
Fundamentally, children are using technology for one single purpose: to connect.
Many children use it to connect with their peer group, other children use it to connect with themselves. The latter is what we normally would see as evading themselves, letting behind the busy life and stress and finding a safe space.
When I see young teenagers using Snapchat, Instagram or Tiktok, what they are doing is creating a virtual world/bubble of safety (or so they think) for themselves.
Imagine their use of technology as your use of imagination when you were a child. I can imagine you are thinking this is a silly analogy, but it is not far from the truth.
When we were kids, we would spend hours (at least I did and not always at the right times as some of my teachers will testify) in our heads, creating a safe world of adventures, or fun, or connection. I can think, for most people, those worlds would be populated and there might be challenges, and good guys and bad guys. And we would overcome those challenges, and we would feel amazing and relaxed and having fun.
Well, when children tell me about Minecraft, or Fortnite, it is not a million miles away. It is just that they are doing it via a device rather than their imagination.
So, we could say, children and technology it is not so bad then? In the end, they are just using their imagination through a device.
Well I don’t believe in black or white statements and there is one part that we haven’t yet talked about.
While our imaginary worlds could be amazing, we would either have it on our head or we would need our friends to create them.
Technology allows them to share those worlds or imagination. This forms an even stronger sense of belonging. They share their experiences and they belong to the group. This fact reinforces the sense of connection to a disproportionate level.
So, when a young person is spending time on their games, they will have many reasons, but the fundamental need that is being fulfilled is the need to evade to a world where they feel connected.
There is a big part, too big for this article about children and technology to go into detail about their need for connection. The reality is that the more connected they feel with their family and physical friends, and stronger sense of belonging they have, the less important that technology will be. So, what is driving their need for connection? or in a different way: what is driving their sense of being left out?
As I said, that is a topic for another whole article as what I want to do on this one is to propose strategies for you to guide your thinking, approach to technology and how your children use it.
Here is my experience from hundreds of sessions of life coaching teenagers.
Let’s start with the basics, according to me. Technology, like most things in this life, is not either good or bad. It is what we make of it. Also, like it or not, our world has changed, and our children are living and will live in a world different from us. They will live in a world in which technology will play a fundamental part in their lives.
I have heard the concept that the future generations will be divided (unfortunately human race does always separate) between those that understand and manage technology and those that don’t.
I am sure you have heard or read headlines about how Silicon Valley parents are raising their kids, technology free. I have done some research and have only found anecdotal information about this and, when expressed, it was more a question of restricting usage rather than avoiding it.
As mentioned, this article is not so much about technology, yes or not. It is about how to manage children and technology in a way that empowers children now, and in the future.
Here are my two principles for what I will share with you next:
1. I believe in teaching and empowering children to make decisions in an age appropriated way.
2. Children are not mature to make many decisions and you cannot delegate the one about use of technology. However, you can help them learn.
What I want to say is that, as much as I love my children and want to empower them to make the right choices, I would not give my 14 years old my car keys or let her open a bottle of whisky.
As parents, we have spent a lot of time teaching our children right from wrong (tell the truth, don’t lie, do your homework, don’t play with knives, look before you cross the road, which movies are appropriated for each age). Yet, we haven’t done the same for technology. In many cases, we have delegated that responsibility to them by the mere fact that we haven’t taken it.
Well, it is our responsibility. Any kid below the age of 16, in my opinion, is not suited to make the call of how they use technology.
Going back to my two principles. It is our responsibility and now the question is to help them make their age appropriate choices.
This works in two levels: firstly, it is which games, apps, etc will they be exposed to. Secondly, it is about how long they can use it.
Start thinking about those but be ready to adapt your decisions to your children and technology (keeping your criteria). Then you can continue with the rest of the article.
I am now going to fast forward and assume that a big proportion of you reading this article are finding themselves in the difficult situation of managing your child’s usage of technology (i.e. time). I am going to assume that your young person doesn’t have any restrictions.
Here is a strategy to adopt that has worked very well.
I have built it up in steps and I hope this helps you see the process. If you have read other articles, you’ll know I do like my processes.
Step 1: First things first: start with the data
Use your phone, tablet, or computer data before you do anything. In general, we will all be poor judges of our habits, (we will tend to overestimate what we are doing well and underestimate what we are doing wrong (have you seen the tv program: secret eater?). Your child, of any age, will struggle to give you an accurate estimation of the number of hours (I don’t think you can do this in minutes) they spend on the screen. Using real data is a must if you want to have a reasonably adult to adult conversation.
If you can’t extract data, time them over a few days before you have the conversation, set up parental controls to time them (not to control them yet).
I can imagine this first step of dealing with children and technology overuse can be painful for some of you and your children. It wasn’t easy either for me, but it is critical to do it. An option is to do this as a group, for instance, you will install and share the same information with them reg your usage.
Step 2: have the first conversation (yes, the first, there are a few more to come).
I call it explain the situation. In this conversation it is fundamental to keep a level-headed approach, simply stating what you have observed. It would go something like:
I want to talk to you about your screen time. I have been observing it and I think it is a bit out of control. I have noticed how; on average you have used your phone/iPad/computer for almost two hours per day.
I know it might seem little but if you consider this is 14 hours per week, it is like a whole awake day per week spent on your screen when you could have been doing loads of other things.
I am a bit worried about this and wanted to let you know.
At this point, stop it there and let them explain themselves. Don’t engage in conversations or challenge their assumptions. Simply mention that it is way too much.
Step 3: Defining the problem and setting up the rules.
After a few weeks (two or three is good enough) of continuous monitoring, you will find out that nothing or very little has changed (if it has improved, give them a medal!). It is time to have the second conversation. Again, remained calmed and fact based. If your kids are struggling with homework, exams or other areas they like it is a good time to bring it in. For instance:
A few weeks ago, we talked about your screen time. I have noticed nothing or very little has changed. At the same time, I have noticed your grades haven’t benefited from this (or have noticed you anxious about your friends, or tired in the mornings). Now I am a bit worried and I am not sure you are conscious of how much you are using the screen/games/etc.
I trust you are a clever boy/girl and you can make your own choices, but unless something changes, I will need to make the choice myself. Should we give it a few weeks and see what happens? But I must warn you that unless you manage this, I will have to step in.
My experience is that this will generate some short-term benefit, however most likely it will quickly revert to usual habits.
It is also important to define what you think is a suitable use for children and technology. There are loads of information online about this and you can use some of the links below to make up your mind. Obviously, this will depend by age group and maybe you want to bring some weekend/weekday flexibility.
Step 4: Activating the rules.
Now, assuming your children are like the vast majority, is when the potential argument happens. In order to defuse it, we will take a three-step approach. It is time to limit the usage, but it is important to ensure you don’t make a personal fight of this. There was an agreement, you gave them the choice (in several occasions) and they haven’t full-filled their part of the bargain. Here is a small script:
I am afraid nothing much has changed. We agreed to limit your screen time to certain times and a maximum number of hours, and you are still well over what we decided. I am afraid I need to set up some blocks, but I want to do it in a way that helps you. I understand it is important for you, so we have to get to an agreement.
I suggest blocking it during homework time and at certain times before bed time.
Or: I suggest you have a maximum number of hours (hour) per day.
I am not going to limit you to those hours as I know it can be annoying, but I want to trust you and you will make the right choice.
I must admit I feel a bit bad about this because it is almost setting them up for failure, however it is also a big generation of self-awareness. At this point, please continue to bring up the things they like they are not doing or the things they need to do (homework, grades, reading) that they are not achieving. This part is hugely important as it will dictate the next step.
Step 5: Implement the limits.
Now, there is no need to wait a few weeks. A few days will be enough. Most likely they will not change their habits and after a few days, while the conversation and “agreement” stills clear in their mind, prepare for the difficult conversation. It goes something like this:
This is the fifth conversation we have about this and nothing has changed. I have given you as many chances as I could, but I haven’t seen any result. It is now time for me to totally limit the time you spent on screen and when you can use it.
In this step, technology is your ally again. Use the available blocking technology and parental controls rather than physically engaging in shutting down the computer or taking their phones away, this way you can prevent some friction with children and technology while still creating an important boundary reminder.
“I will block the computer for a number of weeks. You still have X minutes during the day, and I am happy to extend that on the weekend to X more minutes.”
My personal advice here: in for a penny, in for a pound. It will be annoying to them and it is likely you will have at least one argument; you might as well go the full length and limit it as much as necessary. You can always give them something back and they might thank you. The other way around (taking further time away from them) will only result in regular conflict.
Step 6: review.
In my experience, you will need between three to six weeks to establish new habits. It is important you don’t deviate from the plan. Be aware they are crafty kids and they will look, and most likely, find ways to bend the rules (find passwords to unlock it or spend time in their friends’ phone). After this week, you will notice a big change in the family dynamics. They will still not like it and you can give them the sporadic change of routine, however, be mindful that if you break the rules too much, it will be hugely difficult to re-establish them.
Step 7: Give them some lead way.
Assuming all has gone according to plan after one or two months, you can have another conversation with your children and technology use. Think about holidays or weekend flexibility, This is about devolving a small part of responsibility to them, under the agreement of sensible usage. For instance, if you have hugely limited their use of screen (i.e. 15 or 30 mins per day) you can give them special dispensation for the weekends. It is important to use this to rather than break the rules, to reinforce them.
“I have noticed how responsible you have been on your screen time (not that they had an option) and I am so pleased. I have noticed you …. (sleeping better, more focussed, less anxious, talking more with us, spending more time with your siblings/friends). I think we can open up the rules a bit but only a bit, you are still in school and it is important to not change them too much. Also, I am counting on you to be mindful on how you use it.”
In this stage, it is important to understand that you can only give them the time you are happy for them to use. Expecting too much from them will only result in frustration.
And this is it. This is my strategy for helping empower children and technology and the one I explain to many parents. I am aware there are thousand of variations (i.e. I need to use the computer for my school work) but I hope it gives you an indication on how to go about it.
Finally, a hugely important point:
how will you do this for yourself? Chances are that you are also abusing your screen time when at home. What is a good amount of time for you? How will you limit it?
You can take this approach and do it with your children, rather than for them, creating something together, spending time playing, talking, cooking, etc.
Are you finding it scary the thought of parting with your phone? if so, it only says that you really need to get going. If it’s not scary, remember we are all poor judges of what we do, get your screen time data and see what you think.
I hope you liked the article about children and technology and have got some ideas on how to go about it. As always, take the concept and adapt it to your personal situation. It is important you start a process you feel you can deliver. Changing the rules halfway through or not monitoring or avoiding the conversation will not help them.
Have a lovely day and do let us know how you get on with it.