Mum’s the Word — Unplugging Our Children

By Taryn Dryfhout

Rare is the modern parent who hasn’t worried about whether their child is spending too much time looking at a screen. The conversation isn’t new – when I was a child, parents used to worry about allowing the television to become the babysitter (in my house, it was embraced as such). The game has now changed, and the current struggle is figuring out how to best handle children’s time on the multiple devices that now inhabit our lives.

In our house, we are not very ‘teched out’. We have televisions, and I work from my laptop. I also read from a Kindle, at times, and recently upgraded to a fancy smart phone (but my husband uses the $30 kind – he likes to keep cracking the screen, putting it through the wash in his pants or dropping it in the toilet). Gaming is banned from our house, and we don’t have tablets or iPads.

Despite not having too many devices, we still struggle with keeping our oldest grounded when it comes to ‘screen time’. Evidence shows that children’s dependence on gadgets can be damaging to their health and we have seen this with our own eyes, particularly in one of our children. When master nine is using devices, he becomes irritable and anxious. If he has been using my computer and I need to have it back, he wanders around restlessly, not able to entertain himself or know how to occupy his time. He’s a smart kid, but not so long ago, his reading comprehension was delayed. When we pulled the plug on devices, he was reading within a month, and is now the biggest bookworm you can imagine. This reinforced our feeling that technology was having a detrimental impact.

When Master nine is ‘unhooked’ from devices, he reads, plays outside, plays toys, and is relaxed and content. After trying different limits and techniques for managing device time, we finally just implemented a digital detox. He can watch television and movies, but this is the extent of his screen time. He’s just a Care Bears episode away from being in the 1980s.

Of course, this is a problem, since technology also has its benefits. The advent of platforms like Netflix means that we often use technology for entertainment, and keeping him completely free of devices means he’s also going to lose out on education. Facebook has also become the place the teenagers hang out, so as he gets older, keeping him from technology will also isolate him socially.

It’s also very difficult to unhook a child from devices when you aren’t unhooking yourself. When I tell master nine that he can’t have devices, the first thing he will retort is “then why are YOU on your phone all the time?” And, he’s right. I run every time it pings, I work on my laptop most of the day and check work emails on my phone while we are out. My leisure time is even largely run through technology – I watch Netflix, look at Pinterest (it’s my favourite thing to do) and read books on a Kindle. One of the things I need to work on as a Mum is setting a good example for device habits.

The struggle remains – how do we balance the benefits of modern technology with the risks?

For now, we have decided that technology will be available for educational purposes. In the 80s and 90s, when the ‘television debate’ was rife, parents used to argue that they were happy to make exceptions for educational programmes such as Sesame Street. With so many creative apps and educational YouTube videos, it seems reasonable to allow device time for the good stuff. We can’t assume that something is bad for a child just because it comes in electronic form. If it educates or fosters something creative, then it’s worth allowing them to partake in it, within limits of course.

For now, the mantra “moderation in all things” seems fitting, so we will allow master nine to use technology as part of a balanced ‘diet’. For better or worse, technology is a part of our lives now, and is going to be more a part of our children’s. My job as a Mum, is to make sure that it has a positive effect, rather than a negative one, and that our children can manage technology use in their lives, in a way that is safe and positive.

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