When Screen Time Isn't Quality Time
In this day and age, avoiding technology is near impossible, given its prevalence. How can parents mediate their children’s use of digital devices? Dr. Natalie Pang shares some advice in our June edition of Tabao Thursday.
It is said that children imitate their parents' behaviour; when adults like us are as reliant on technology as we are, it comes as little surprise that our children are the same, if not more so. As true digital natives, the children of this millennium will grow up surrounded by technology, with both its benefits and potential harms, and parents are understandably concerned about how this will impact their children.
In our June Tabao Thursday session, monthly lunchtime talks organised by CapitaLand’s Workspace Community Engagement team, Dr. Natalie Pang delivered a webinar about parenting in the digital age, addressing concerns and questions about the use of technology and its implications.
As the Senior Lecturer in Communications and New Media at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the National University of Singapore, a Principal Investigator for the Centre for Trusted Internet and Community, and a mother of one, her work and her interest centers around the Internet, social media, and its impact on people. She shared points that are relevant not only to parents, but to anyone who would like a more mindful approach to using the Internet and various digital tools.
What makes technology so addictive?
Dr. Pang started off by exposing how social media applications manage to capture our attention so easily. Applications are governed by algorithms that can filter or recommend posts based on relevancy, prioritising content which will keep users engaged on the platforms for as long as possible. You might be familiar with this if you’re a Netflix subscriber—their “Because You Watched” or “You Might Enjoy” recommendations, as well as a quick-loading “Next Episode” button, are all geared towards keeping you glued to the screen, fending off what they say is their biggest competitor: sleep.
This is the inherent problem with technology—while much of it has been designed to make our lives more efficient and convenient, the goals that it has are vastly different from our human goals. We might desire to travel, improve ourselves, or pursue dreams; but technology’s aim is to optimise for clicks, views, likes, and shares. Dr. Pang says that understanding this difference is the first step towards having an open, honest conversation with your children (and yourself) about whether you're using technology the right way, or if technology has been using you.
We’ve all seen it, and might even be guilty of it—parents using their phones or tablets as a babysitting tool for children at meal time. (This was a journey that Dr. Pang undertook with her son as well. Her suggestion? Don’t even start, but if you have, speak to your child about discontinuing this practice and explain why.) For school-going children in this current pandemic, home-based learning on digital devices also means access to the Internet, online games, Discord, and more. Tweens and teenagers are at a stage where they’re forming their relationships and social identities—a big part of that is formed online, but not all of them understand that everything they see, click, or buy remains as an invisible digital footprint that never really goes away.
Parents might also be concerned about their children being seemingly addicted to social media or apps. “To deal with addiction, you have to understand how it works before you can deal with it,” Dr. Pang says. Addiction comes from unexpected rewards, or gratification (e.g. gifts in games, or validation from social media). "If your child is old enough to understand this, it can be fun to explain and help them to see it from a more objective viewpoint. Communicate that how they use is as important as how long they use it.”
Dr. Pang advises that restriction/arbitrary banning is usually not the right answer, as limiting your child’s use can seem threatening to them. “What’s important is to create a safe space where they can talk to you about how they use technology, and any problems they encounter online such as cyberbullying,” Dr. Pang adds. She went on to share some potential ways to tackle an over-dependence on technology, and ways to help our children be more mindful about how they spend their time with digital devices.
1. Digital Minimalism
You might have heard of a digital detox, where you remove yourself from technology and go cold turkey for a period of time. However, digital minimalism is a long-term approach that encourages us to rethink our relationship with technology. Elaborated on in a book by Carl Newport, digital minimalism seeks to help us declutter our digital lives, with a focus on making use of technology in a way that is good for you. But where do we start? Newport suggests 30 days of digital minimalism, something we can try out along with our children.
- Step 1: Starting the 30-day break
- Have a conversation with your children about what they want from technology
- Get them to sort out the apps/technology they use: what is convenient, what is optional, what is critical
- Set conditions/procedures for using these
- Step 2: What to do with all the free time during the 30-day break?
- Spend time with loved ones
- Pursue what you enjoy, or find something meaningful such as learning a new skill
- Aim to 'reset' your daily activities so that you can be mindful and purposeful in reintroducing technologies in the next step
- Step 3: Reintroducing technology
- After 30 days, don't immediately jump back on the apps/technology that have been aside
- Instead, ask: Does this technology directly support something I value? Is this the best way to support this value? How can I use this technology to maximise its value, and minimise its harms?
Communication is crucial, Dr. Pang says. "We must encourage them to be more intentional and mindful about the way they use their devices and the apps they browse through, as well as the content they indulge in.” Parents should also work hard on breaking down FOMO—a fear that children might have about missing out on what their peers are experiencing online. Having a conversation about what is it that your children fear missing out on, and why, can also encourage your children to have healthier relationships with technology, as well as with others.
Most parents might default towards setting time limits and restrictions on how long and when their children can use digital devices, but did you know that there are other ways of mediation? Before we begin, however, Dr. Pang reiterates that communication is the most important. “This is how we get our children to agree, while respecting their privacy and boundaries,” she says. “We also want to create a safe space for them to share their thoughts on the form of mediation.” Here are some forms of mediation to explore:
- Perhaps the most familiar to most parents, where screen time is limited
- Dr. Pang says that there’s no fixed answer as to how much screen time should be allowed for children, as it depends how old they are and what they need to use digital devices for. The time limit should be something that both parent and child agree on.
- Dr. Pang suggests asking them to reflect on what those hours spent online could mean when spent offline.
- Discussions and comments on the content consumed or apps used; usually happens after your child has watched a piece of content or used an app.
- The most involved, such as watching a movie or playing a game together, which allows you to better understand what your child is interacting with.
Dr. Pang stressed again that there’s no singular right way to mediate your child’s use of technology, but says it’s about coming to an agreement on what both parties are comfortable with. Sharing what you’re hoping to get out of the mediation can be a first step towards a good compromise. As with most things in life, moderation is key, and a healthy dose of mindfulness and intentionality will help you and your child to make the best out of technology.
For further exploration, Dr. Pang recommends this website for reviews on games, movies, books and more, written by parents with children in mind. This other website has helpful tools and resources to help you manage digital boundaries.
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