WORDS: Danielle Verrilli
We know that humans are hard-wired for connection. So, with lockdowns, online learning and restrictions around socialising in normal ways over the past two years, it’s no surprise that children have found new ways to connect and communicate with the outside world.
Post COVID increase in screen time
Thankfully, children have been able to participate in activities that are protective to their wellbeing like exploring interests online, playing games, staying in touch with friends, Facetime with family members. This has meant more time spent online and children communicating in different ways with their peers and all of this time online has been somewhat problematic for some families.
The downside of all of this significant increase in screen time is that parents are finding it challenging getting their children offline, many children have told us they have been approached by a stranger online, and more children are reporting negative experiences i.e. online bullying, nasty messages. The research suggests that whilst there was a surge in screen time during online learning of up to 7.5 hours, with the easing of restrictions these stubborn new online habits have not changed. As parents we relaxed our restrictions to allow for online learning and engagement but it is proving very difficult to reign it all in.
The ongoing conversation and ever-changing landscape of screen time leaves parents with their hands in the air seeking guidance and definitive answers about the right thing to do.
Recent research indicates a strong link between managing screen time and problematic internet use. But what is suggested is that with extended time online comes symptoms like fatigue, making poor choices and lowering barriers to safety, perhaps less filtering and reducing privacy as needed to gain more contact. These are currently seen as the bigger risk to online safety than an addiction to the screens themselves. Post pandemic, these symptoms have meant a dramatic increase in image-based abuse, illegal and violent content, and online bullying.
Managing screen time post COVID
As parents it is important to embrace the way children are connecting, learning, and developing skills. The gap seems wide for some, but there are ways to close the gap and be more involved with your child’s online world. After all, if you want to keep an eye on what is going on you need to jump in feet first.
Here are our top four tips for online safety and managing screen time post Covid;
- Help children to understand the importance of managing their own time on screens. Many children think of their online or gaming time as the most important thing they do all day. This starts with being a good role model. Try to avoid spending time on your own device during family time, where possible, or when you are one on one with your child. This is difficult as much of our communication and work takes place on our phones and laptops. If you do need to be on your device, let them know why i.e. ‘I just have to send this email to my boss’ or ‘I’m just sending a text to nanna to organise her birthday dinner’. This will help them to understand the purpose and functionality of your device use. Are we the consumers of the online world or are we being consumed? It is important to help children understand the how and why we spend time online and the impact of that on our social, emotional and behavioural health.
- Talk to your children about why it is important to have time online and offline and the positive impact of this balance on their health and wellbeing. Explore the impact of too much time online and being online too close to bedtime, and how this prevents the body from preparing for sleep. After this conversation then it is time to agree on some ground rules and help them stick to them to help set up some good habits.
- Taking our devices to bed has become a common habit for us as adults, we’re all guilty of it. We justify that we need it in case of an urgent call, or to set an alarm, or for one last scroll through emails or Facebook. There have been studies that indicate almost 50% of children take their devices to bed at night too. One of the most significant issues that arise from this behaviour is sleep problems as the blue light omitted from the blue screen does cause sleep delay as it suppresses the production of melatonin. In addition to this, children can experience interrupted sleep as they hear the alerts and notifications sound throughout the night.
- Having a device in the bedroom also allows for unsupervised online time. Most online bullying, sharing of sexually explicit images, and access to pornography also occurs late at night and this can put children at serious risk. Children can be impulsive at this time of night, make emotional decisions and take uncalculated risks. To make matters worse the household is all asleep and there is nobody around for support should it be needed.
- If keeping the devices in the bedroom is absolutely necessary, use the screen time app or similar to disable certain features of the phone after a certain time, but it is best to set up good habits for the whole family and have an area in the house where all devices are put to bed to charge overnight.
Screen time management can be one of the greatest challenges of parenting in the digital age. You are not alone, this is a common story among many parents. If you need some support to get on top of this, seek assistance from your school counsellor/wellbeing staff, GP, or a psychologist.
As an experienced Teacher and Counsellor, Danielle has a special interest in the wellbeing of children and working with families. Through her 25 years’ experience working in education settings; teaching, counselling, and delivering quality wellbeing programs to students of all ages, Danielle has found a passion for providing safe online environments for all children and identified a need for cyber safety education and support for families, schools and communities.