“Honestly speaking, we need screen time to keep our sanity,” says PR director and mother-of-three, Scarlett Sykes, who is based in Dubai. “Before I had my first daughter I told myself that I would be that super-crafty mum who always came up with creative ideas to keep the kids busy, without the need for screen time. Fast-forward to being parents of three very demanding little girls, and it’s safe to say that has gone out of the window.”
With technology here not just to stay, but set to play an exponentially bigger part in our lives, parent’s unease at allowing their children online access has been assuaged in recent years by apps that offer services such as parental controls, domain blocking and activity logging.
Parents are also aware, however, that danger lurks beyond online bullying and identity theft, as studies have shown excessive screen time can lead to depression, sleep problems, anxiety, lower test scores at school and obesity.
"The objective for parents should not be about banning their children from their devices, it should rather be about making sure that all other necessary childhood tasks aren’t compromised by their usage of technology," advises Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist and education director at The LightHouse Arabia wellness centre in Dubai. "When parents minimise the importance of technology in their children’s lives, they then also run the risk of creating a disconnect in their relationship with their children.
"We need to understand that today’s children are ‘digital natives’, and that their parents and educators are ‘digital immigrants’," she says. "It is therefore important that parents find a way to embrace this world of their children while still finding ways to protect them from it."
Back in 2011, Steve Jobs told The New York Times that even he limits how much technology his kids use at home. With the inventor of the iPad admitting to having rules in place, so too should other parents, and there are plenty of ways to put together household regulations that don't cause upsets, marginalise teenagers or hinder communication.
“Instead of setting unrealistic time limits parents should focus on the quality of screen time, making it more creative, productive, educative and prosocial while avoiding the empty calories from toxic, addictive and junk technology,” says Dr Thenral Munusamy, psychiatrist at Aster Clinic Muteena in Dubai.
For parents concerned about the amount of time their children are spending on technology, here are six realistic rules to try at home.
1. Introduce tech-free mealtimes
“Try to make mealtimes phone-free – that includes for parents,” says Dr Ateeq Qureshi, child psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “Remove the temptation completely by leaving all electronic devices in another part of the house while you all enjoy a meal together.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Saved By The Bell and White Collar actress Tiffani Amber Thiessen. “We’re definitely strict about just sitting down as a family and eating. That’s really important, especially when it’s the school year,” she told Yahoo!. “We’re much more strict about every night sitting home and having dinner together as a family, no electronics, not even our phones.”
2. Be a technology role model
"The tech rules we enforce at home include not allowing screen time during meals and we also refrain from using any gadgets and devices during carved out family time," says Lianne D’souza, a marketing manager and mum to Nathan, 5, and Luke, 2. "Plus, homework and age appropriate errands around the house must be done in order for the boys to earn their tech time of 45 minutes per day.
"As parents, we need to model the same behaviour we expect from them and I also find involving healthy ways to use technology to teach them an academic concept while also spending time with them is very helpful while also providing some balance."
One of the best ways to be a tech role model at home is by prioritising family time over looking at your phone, putting down your phone when talking so you're not having conversations with one eye on your device, and giving children and others your full attention while talking.
“Actions speak louder than words, so don’t tell children, show them,” says Dr Munusamy. “Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating as children learn by imitation. Parents are advised to use media the way they want their children to. Modelling safe behaviour is necessary to raise children to use their devices appropriately.”
3. Choose quality over quantity
Just as consuming 100 calories of vegetables is different to consuming 100 calories of cake, so, too, are there differences in the quality of what your children consume in terms of technology. An hour on Instagram is not the same as an hour of a National Geographic documentary on YouTube.
“The only rules I am very strict with is the content that is watched,” says Sykes, whose daughters are aged 5, 3 and 18 months. “As parents of girls in particular I’m very conscious of what they are exposed to, so we make sure that it is either educational or, if it is just a random TV show, that it’s as diverse and inclusive as possible.”
“Co-viewing or co-playing video games is important with young children,” advises Qureshi. "Parents can mitigate some of the harmful effects by making these activities more interactive, more educational and guiding them through content which may not be completely appropriate.
“It also helps parents understand their children’s social interaction better. The virtual space is as much a real social space for digital natives as a cafe, a park or a restaurant for the parents.”
4. Introduce media-free zones in the home
The creation of media-free times can apply to things such as mealtimes, during movie nights, family board games or family outings. It is also a good idea to create phone-free zones in the house with areas such as bedrooms, the dining table, outdoors, cars and the bathroom the most realistic and easiest areas to enforce the rule. Experts agree children's bedrooms should be no-go areas for devices.
“If the bedroom is a media-free zone, don’t leave phones charging in the bedroom. The temptation to use during the night or as soon as they wake up is too great,” says Qureshi.
“Always try to ensure that children and teens are not ‘locked away’ on their devices, but as far as possible use them in the presence of others, so parents are aware of their online activities,” says Munusamy.
5. Make the rules together as a family
"Co-create a family media plan with your children by discussing technology use in an open fashion where expectations are set for the whole family," says Kritzas. "Involving children in the rule-making around technology will make them less likely to break these rules."
Munusamy says: “Parents should explain the rules and restrictions around technology to bring their children on board rather than make it a battle with them. This is true for younger kids as well as older teenagers.”
Using technology to spend time with the family can help to provide a positive view of technology use, encouraging younger members to associate the importance of bonding with others while responsibly using technology.
“Parents should use evidence-based advice and not demonise all digital technology use,” advises Qureshi of setting ground rules. “Avoid the use of terms like ‘addicted’ to describe children’s behaviour ,which doesn’t help but hinders by making the child defensive.
“Parents should educate themselves about the media that children use so they can talk about the negatives in an informed manner,” he says. “They should discuss with them how this is similar to looking after them in the real world because of the real-world dangers of the social space.”
6. Create flexible rules which grow with your children
Technology rules should not be applied with a one-size-fits-all approach. After all, tech rules for 2-year-olds will be vastly different than for teenagers.
"Parents need to formulate a healthy family media usage plan to help children navigate the digital world,” says Munusamy. “Having kids at various developmental stages makes this task quite challenging and the plan has to be personalised and tailored accordingly.”
She suggests researching the age appropriateness and safety ratings of apps and programs, and revisiting the plans to update them periodically as children grow and the family’s schedule changes.
"I would advise parents to do their own research depending on the child’s age as to what the recommended daily screen time is,” says Jane Elizabeth Muff, transformational coach and energy healer at Miracles Wellness Centre in Dubai. “I have noticed huge changes in children's personalities, especially my own 13-year-old son, when screen time is reduced. This includes an increased interest in conversations, being aware of what is happening in life around them and an overall improvement in attitude and behaviour."
When it comes to using parental controls or monitoring apps on older teenagers, the issue of trust between parents and children's needs to be discussed. “Spying and prying on your child’s phone might undermine the trust in the relationship, but if parents intend to check on it they should make sure that the children are informed about it,” says Munusamy.