When it comes to technology for kids, the conclusion always seems to be: Less if more. But is it really all that bad?

There are arguments that when judiciously used, new technologies and devices enhance children’s opportunities for learning, particularly when it comes to collaboration and problem-solving. The International Literacy Association brought together the evidence in 2019 and emphasised that it’s not so much the screen as what’s on it. They say the common elements of advice are:

  • Selection of high-quality digital media conveying content that supports curricular and learning goals and includes minimal distractors (e.g. ads or links that take users away from a site)
  • Integration of digital technologies in ways that complement and enhance learning with other essential materials and activities
  • Use of technology that supports development of creativity, exploration, collaboration, problem-solving, and knowledge development
  • Use of technology to strengthen home–school connections
  • Access to assistive technologies to support equitable opportunities for learning.

Inexorably, new technologies including coding are being brought into schools. In the home, there’s research that shows that technology can help bridge the gap in literacy outcomes between children from high and low socio-economic backgrounds. The Telethon Kids Institute notes that having access to a computer in the home is significantly associated with a better vocabulary by the age of eight and that devices can unlock creativity in children.

Setting screen rules for them, and us

Screens should be used with discretion which, of course, is the difficult bit. You might have to adapt your strategy to meet the specific needs of your child—for instance, do they tend to be a bit obsessive? Are they inclined to physical activity, or do they need to be shoehorned out of the house?

Blanket technology bans don’t tend to work. Sometimes you hear frustrated parents declare, “I’m taking away the iPad forever!”

I’m going to bet that the child will call your bluff. Or you’ll realise soon enough that it’s hard to ban a device that you rely on to read your morning newspaper. Young children born in the twenty-first century are so tech-savvy that they’re running rings around their parents. In the short term, it might feel good to “ban” the internet, YouTube or Fortnite, but you’ll need an iron will to hold firm on the ban and you might lose the opportunity to have a constructive conversation with your children about setting limits on their digital usage. Especially if you’re not limiting yours.

Research suggests the best way through is to make a plan with your children governing healthy screen use. The Telethon Kids Institute suggests that parents and caregivers communicate consistent and realistic messages about how much and what kind of screen time is allowed. As children grow older, prepare agreements that clearly describe how technology can be used by family members.

  • Australia’s e-safety commissioner suggests involving your child in creating a family plan for leisure and entertainment that balances time spent in front of the internet and TV with a variety of offline activities.
  • Tie a physical activity to electronic time.
  • Taking screens off children can lead to arguments and resentment. So gentle warnings like “Ten minutes until we switch it off” can reduce conflict around switching off the screen.

The thing is that such rules should not just be for the kids in the house. It may be harder for us adults to comply than you’d imagine but all devices off at mealtimes is a start.

Try to avoid using your screens as an “emotional pacifier” for yourself or your kids to keep them quiet. Children, like you and me, aren’t robots and don’t like being turned off for too long. No judgement, but try to keep a lid on it.

This is an edited extract from So You Think You Know What’s Good For You by Norman Swan, available now in all good book shops and online.

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