Help! How should we manage tech-free time for kids?

Electronic devices can build anxiety in our kids. Here, Emma Bangay looks at the impact of digital addiction and gives her personal insight into raising kids 'tech-free' during a decade that has been devoured by all things Apple.

Whether it’s no phones at bedtime or rewards for breaks from screen time, more and more parents are putting their children on some form of digital diet, according to the Mindshare tech trend forecast for 2017.

A decade after the first iPhone was released, six in 10 children say that they have neglected schoolwork due to being online and a sizable amount of teenagers believe they have nomophobia; smartphone separation anxiety.

"There is a greater consciousness today that the digital onslaught should be controlled and privileges doled out to children in order make room for genuine, family time," says Bill Ratner, Author of Stressed Out! For Teens, Parenting for the Digital Age, "but sadly, the vast majority of parents are addicted to their own digital devices, serving as bad examples to their children, plus parents use their iPhones and iPads as electronic babysitters."

I suppose this is where my story is a little different. I had my first child in March 2007. The year to follow was pivotal, yet foggy. One day stands out in my mind, however, and it made more of an impact on my parenting than any self-help book or Wiggles rerun ever could. It was not long after June 29, 2007, I'd guess, because on this day, Steve Jobs released the first iPhone. And on this day, I believe, the choices regarding in-the-moment motherhood changed forever.

The ripple effect of that single day has resonated with me over the decade since. I think of it often; one day I was sitting at the sandpit with every other new mother sharing stories, crying on each other's milk-stained shoulders and getting dirty knee deep with toothless babies. By the end of that winter week, no one would speak to me - or to each other. Children were tasting sand for the first (of many) times; pirate swords were being expertly fashioned out of sticks unbeknownst to adults and swings were hanging idle. Parents, meanwhile, were transfixed by their shiny new toy; the smartphone.

I feel very lucky that I gave birth around the same time as Apple because it allowed me to see the 'before' and 'after,' to make the choice of whether to jump in or circulate the new technology. I chose the latter and a decade on, my two children - now almost 10 and seven - are still pretty cool with it. 

Maybe this is rare, I don't know as I'm not one to talk parenting. I'm still learning, but Dr. Kristy Goodwin, author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World believes children can thrive offline as well as online. Shaping her research-based findings around seven essential building blocks for young children's development - Attachment and Relationships; Language; Sleep; Play; Physical movement; Nutrition; and Executive function skills, Dr Goodwin believes that tech parameters are personal, not universal. What works in your home may not work in another. And I couldn't agree more. There is no doubt that technology can open infinite new worlds to new minds, but so can the real world, and that's the one we tune into.

So, even though I'm no tech expert (I have only two guinea pigs in my life, and they are still works in progress) here is what has worked for us. So far:

  • Pencils, Not iPads

From the time my toddlers began to tire of rusks and rattles, I threw a crayon their way. They ate a few and broke many. But during that time, idle hands spurred creative minds. No cafe was safe from the napkin stealing antics of my toddlers, scribbling on anything that wasn't nailed down. That was my weapon of choice in the war against boredom, not technology. Looking back, I think they only knew what they knew. To this day, I have at least six pens in my bag at any given time and a pretty epic array of drawings to show for it.

  • Be On The Same Page 

My husband and I both work in creative fields, so this may heavily influence how much emphasis we put on imagination and creativity outside screens. It's limitless, and it brings us all so much joy. But whatever you're vocation or interest, I think it's imperative that both parents agree on tech guidelines as this is where kids thrive. They know the boundaries and work within them.

  • Monkey See, Monkey Do

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If my kids aren't handed technology at the table or whenever boredom beckons, then my husband and I won't have it either. We never have, and this is a choice we made together. It's not a convenient one as idly scanning Instagram while pretending not to notice your kids mixing salt into the sugar bowl at cafes would be ace. But if we have our phones at the cafe or restaurant what message does that send them?

So phones at the cafe, restaurant or our table and computers in communal living areas have never come into play. And guess what? No one has died. Conversations have been cultivated, and eye contact encouraged. I will never regret this rule as I always remind myself that when they are old enough to have their phones, how am I expected to ask them to put it away at meal time or not be playing with it when I'm trying to talk to them as teens?

  • Self-Monitoring Monitor Time

The kids are in primary school now, so screens are as much a part of their learning as Crayolas. And that's great because they are learning about the big, wide tech world at a pace the should, through the right avenues and without banner ads assaulting them 24/7. After school anytime not devoured by activities is spent outside or drawing or navigating short-lived boredom. Half an hour before bed is reading time - with a good old fashion book rather than kindle.

"I don’t believe in daily “digital playtime” for kids," Bill says. "Family meals and homework take up enough time during the school week. Weekends should be the only time a child can have free access to digital devices for any reason other than homework. If a parent is consistent and rules are enforced, ‘reward’ time on weekends can serve the family well," he says.

  • Give Options

There are zillion things that kids can do instead of being on a screen. So many things! Taking away an iPad a few times to set the rules is nothing compared to what you give them. A creative mind is a capable mind. The options you give them are endless, and therefore, they are not limited by what the battery life can serve up. If they don't have a prop, God knows they have the imagination to find one. It takes more time and patience in the process, but it's worth it.

  • Make Movies Memorable

This has worked for me. My kids are crazy happy kids. If they are bored, that is fantastic. It forces them to ponder what they can get their hands and minds into when it's not handed to them. They love reading. They love movies - we have movie nights on Friday and Saturday nights which encourage together time and provide screen time. I asked my son if he'd prefer to be playing games instead of watching a movie and he gave me a firm 'no.' "With a game, you always want five minutes more because it never seems to end, and you don't want to miss out," he told me. "With a movie, you get two hours and then you can go to bed with that story in your head."

  • Let Them Self-Regulate

I may be melancholy for my tech-free childhood, but I'm not naive. The kids need to be tech literate so as their minds develop, so will their access. Above all else, we'll do it together so that tech is never a bad thing; it's just not the only thing.

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