Digital Mentorship - How To Safely Prepare Your Children For A Screen-Based World

Since posting my Screentime vs Storytime blog last month, I’ve been on a journey. I’ve continued researching the topic, and while some findings are alarming, they’re also thought provoking. However, simply worrying about the evils of technology won’t help us to raise kids who are prepared for a world dominated by screens… I decided I needed action.

In The Classroom

I chose school as my starting point. The screentime issue really became magnified when my kids started being required to have their own iPads for classes. Are tablet devices really necessary for effective education, especially when many parents are trying to limit their kids’ access to screens?

According to research in Russell Marks’ Screen time, all the time essay, “although digital technology can improve students’ interest in learning, increases in actual achievement are only modest.” Frighteningly, the most commonly referenced studies in the area have been funded by tech companies such as Samsung and Apple. Unsurprisingly, these studies focus on screen-based improvements in areas like numeracy, memory and spacial awareness. These companies have a great deal to gain by getting tablet devices into schools, and not just in the short term – getting kids hooked early means a lifetime of brand loyalty.

Many teachers report obsessive behaviour.

In addition to limited educational benefits, Marks spoke with many teachers who regularly experience difficulties getting students to put their iPads away following a lesson. Increased aggression and obsessive behaviour was commonly reported, similar to what many parents encounter at home (myself included!). However, unlike parents (who have many options when dealing with a tantrum), teachers are required to manage a whole class while moving onto the next lesson. My former life as a primary teacher took place before the introduction of tablet technology (thank goodness!), so I can only begin to imagine how stressful these situations would be.


Finding The Facts

Moving away from the classroom, I was no closer to developing strategies for screen time issues at home. I wondered where my concerns fit in amongst other parents? According to my kids, all their friends are allowed to play on their iPads whenever they want – could this really be true? So I looked into the research…it was concerning.


Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital conducts a quarterly survey entitled The Australian Child Health Poll, which recently found that “excessive screen time” is Australians’ number one concern affecting the health of children and teenagers – more so than family violence, unhealthy diets, child abuse, obesity, bullying, and even internet safety. So, are parents acting on those concerns? It doesn’t appear so. Another recent RCH survey found that:

  • Two thirds of primary school children – and more than a third of preschoolers – have their own mobile device.
  • Close to half are using them at bedtime, which is linked to sleep problems.
  • Half of toddlers and preschoolers are using them without supervision.
  • 85% of parents of young children say they use screens to occupy their kids so they can get things done.
  • On average Australian children spend at least four and a half hours every day looking at screens – and that’s just at home.


What Can I Do About It?

Australian parents clearly know that excessive screen time is an issue, but very few understand how to address that problem. So I did some more research - the following study considered over 10,000 families’ parenting styles in relation to technology. Parental attitudes were divided into three groups:

  • Enablers, whose children have plenty of screen time and access to apps and devices.
  • Limiters, who minimize their children’s access to technology based on information about it damaging attention spans and interpersonal relationships.
  • Digital mentors, who take an active role in guiding their children’s screen use. These parents regularly talk with their kids about how to use technology and the Internet responsibly (there are some great ideas for that here). They research specific devices and programs for their kids, and they are more likely to connect with their kids through technology rather than in spite of it.
Children of limiters are twice as likely to engage with inappropriate material online

Children of limiters are twice as likely to engage with inappropriate material online

The study demonstrated that Digital Mentors were the parents most successfully preparing their children for a screen-dominated world. The children of limiters were twice as likely to engage with inappropriate material online, and three times more likely to impersonate someone else online. Reading this, I thought back to my son’s first weekend at home with his own iPad. He admitted to me that he’d conducted some rather questionable online searches. Thankfully, it was nothing too disturbing, but my personal experience confirms that when children’s screen time is severely limited, they may lack the skills to safely navigate the online environment.


Bringing It Together

It was confronting to learn that my gut reaction of minimising kids’ screentime is not necessarily the best option. It certainly may develop their capacity for meaningful face-to-face relationships, but the fact is that much of modern life is now “virtual”. Balance is the key – that elusive concept our lives are missing in so many areas.

The next leg of my journey will not exclusively involve placing limits on screen time, but real involvement in our kids’ technology use by actively engaging with their online lives. They’ll probably be teaching me more than I’m teaching them! As the study’s author Alexandra Samuel says, “We can’t prepare our kids for the world they will inhabit as adults by dragging them back to the world we lived in as kids.”

Is Digital Mentorship something you can bring into your own family's life?

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