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Parenting in the digital age

digital age

By Lome Koekemoer

What impact does digital technology have on parenting?

Kids growing up in the digital age, are likely to learn how to use applications on their parents’ phones before they learn how to ride a bike or tie their shoelaces. They grow up in a time, where social media, the internet and the applications of other technological devices such as smartphones, Ipads etc. have changed a big part of society’s interactions with one another. If it has changed the interactions within society, it is certain to change the interactions between child and parent. I believe that digital technology in itself is not the “cause of evil”, but I see, on a daily basis, the negative impact that digital technology can have on the parent-child relationship and the health of the child if not consciously managed by the parent. As parents, our first priority is to focus on our children’s need for connection with us and with others, and digital technology should be managed in a way that fosters this connection.

The main danger that digital technology holds for children, is that it becomes increasingly difficult for parents to manage their child’s exposure to the appropriate technology. It becomes difficult for parents to manage their child’s readiness to hear certain information, and thus becomes more difficult to protect our kids from premature exposure. Our kids are often not ready to be bombarded with the information that is found on TV, in games and in other technological exposure.


What impact does digital technology have on our kids’ development?

When we grow up, we learn a great deal about problem solving through play, and especially games that incorporate interpersonal interactions. We learn about exploration, about our own identities, about our own competence and about problem resolution and decision making. Though digital technology also offer children some of these learning opportunities, it does so in an artificial manner and excludes some of the fundamental building blocks that are needed for childhood development. Most digital games do not teach our kids about consequences, because you always have “another life” that you can use to play the game again. These games also do not teach our kids about human interaction and emotional intelligence. Research has shown that your child’s level of emotional intelligence is one of the biggest predictors  of good adjustment,  better grades, interpersonal success and feelings of happiness. So, parents need to help their kids develop healthy self-perceptions, stress management, interpersonal skills, adaptability, assertiveness, conflict management and social responsibility – none of which can be really fostered through digital technology. Studies have also shown that an increase in screen time can actually lead to a decrease in your child’s cognitive ability, concentration levels and their ability to self-soothe.


What practical tips can you provide for parents regarding the use of digital technology with their kids:

  • For younger kids, every hour of TV creates a greater likelihood of attention problems and bullying and could often lead to aggressive behavior during adolescence and adulthood. So try to keep TV viewing to a minimum for children under the age of 2 and then after that try to keep it to no more than 60-90 minutes per day.
  • A good rule of thumb to use is to require your child to participate in 1 hour of non-digital activities (i.e. reading, playing outside, riding bikes, walking in the park, interacting with friends) for every hour of exposure to digital technology. Also encourage your kids to engage in physical activity, as this is crucial for their physical development.
  • Make a rule that requires your kids to restrict the use of digital technology to public spaces in the house (i.e. the living room or kitchen).
  • Digital technology devices should not be used as babysitters. It should never be used as a substitute for paying attention to or spending time with your kids. As parents we need to accept the responsibility that we need to play an ACTIVE role in our child’s development. This means that we need to play with them, interact with them and help them explore the world.
  • Teach your kids about positive computing habits from an early age and set a good example with your online behaviors. Don’t expect your kids to restrict their time on digital technology if you spend almost all your free time doing it.
  • Build trust with your kids and foster regular communication and connection, as this will make it easier for them to share their online activities with you as well.
  • You should actively manage the content that your child is exposed to via digital technology. Ask yourself: “what will my child be learning through their exposure to a certain TV programme, game or application”? Ultimately, your goal should be to only allow exposure that will help them learn something fruitful and develop in a healthy manner.
  • There are really great educational programmes and applications available – stick to these when you want to expose your kids to technology.
  • Reinforce that screen time should be earned and should not be seen as an inalienable right. This could be earned by good behaviour, good grades, helping out around the house or doing good deeds in the community.
  • Remember that phones are also digital devices … so apply the same rules to your child’s phone.
  • Teach your child about the real meaning of the word “friend” or “buddy”.  Social media technology has started to give children a false sense of friendship. A friend is someone you have a personal face-to-face relationship with. We tell our kids to not talk to strangers, but we don’t enforce the same behaviour with digital technology.

Ultimately, parents need to understand that digital technology is here to stay. We cannot protect our children from it by blocking it completely, as this will lead to unhealthy behaviors as well. We need to accept and embrace it as part of our parenting role. When it comes to parenting, the  key ingredient always has been and always will be the parents’ focus on establishing a deep connection with their children. If we maintain a consistent focus on connection, we will be better abled to manage the impact of technology on our kids.

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