How to tackle screen addiction with children
Do you feel concerned about the amount of time your children spend online? Do you find technology causes friction as you wrench their screens off them at the dinner table and bedtime?
Rare is the parent who will answer "no" to either of those questions. But then ask yourself this: Do you also endlessly check your own smartphone? How often do you deploy tablets as babysitters, to keep your digital darlings quiet when you need to get on with things?
It's hands up to every one of these things from me, and I know many other parents who are struggling to find balance in this era of hyper-connectedness.
We are the first generation of parents who are encountering this as a problem and, until now, there has been no blueprint as to what we should and shouldn't be doing.
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But that is set to change with Unplugged Parenting, a hard-hitting new book by leading clinical psychologist Elizabeth Kilbey, who argues that if we don't tackle the problem of screen addiction early, then we are in grave danger of damaging our kids' development.
"If we, as parents, leave our children unchecked, we are going to make their lives a lot tougher in the long run," says Kilbey.
Screen time - games and social media affirmation - stimulates the reward centres in young brains which makes kids crave ever more hits, hence some commentators have taken to using the term "digital heroin".
But Kilbey is less damning, arguing there is a middle way and that breaking our kids' screen addiction doesn't mean turning them into playground pariahs unable to relate to the modern world.
A mother of three (aged 16, 14 and nine), she even confesses that her youngest child, Eliot, was given his own tablet at the age of four. "It was an entirely pragmatic decision made to preserve family harmony," she says. "I need my tablet for work but he would keep taking it, so I bought him one.
But although it is teenagers who appear fixated on screens, Kilbey believes that children between the ages of five and 12 who are most vulnerable.
Once a child reaches primary school, deep inside the brain crucial connections are being made that shape a child's identity and lay the groundwork for social interaction and emotional resilience.
"Children take in so much at this stage; they observe and copy," says Kilbey. "They learn how the world works and observe the emotional compromises necessary in daily life.
"A child who spends their free time upstairs alone and online is missing out on testing their own physical boundaries."
"I'm not naive, I don't think ditching all the devices in the house is a viable option," stresses Kilbey. "But I see the friction screen time causes: children concentrate so hard it induces a state of hyper-focus where they are oblivious of everything around them.
Kilbey suggests a number of practical strategies to cut back on screen time, the most ingenious being the centralisation of chargers so that children have to hand over smartphones at bedtime. Another useful piece of advice is encouraging screen time in family areas so children are not isolated for long stretches of time.
But parental mindsets need to alter before real change can take effect. And that means not just pulling the proverbial plug on our children, but our own behaviours, too, and holding our nerve.
"Modern parents feel obliged to entertain their children which they really don't need to do," reassures Gilbert. "Being bored is part of life and children are predisposed to amuse themselves.
"Stick with it and you will not only be doing your kids a great service, you will transform your family's life."
- The Telegraph, London