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Back to Reality! Digital Detox

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We all know that kids’ daily screen time surged during coronavirus, and we all know that it’s time to help them to unplug – at least a bit. But exactly how can we make this happen? Lorraine Cook reports


Children’s increased reliance on screens helped maintain a sense of normality during coronavirus. They had digital teachers to educate them in virtual classrooms and digital babysitters to entertain them through device-led playtime; they socialised with friends online. As a result, screen-time limits, in homes across the globe, were effectively out of the picture. But now that life is looking a lot more normal (a lot less like a sci-fi film), isn’t it time to cut back on all the tech?

The big question is how do you reduce your child’s reliance at least on personal tech (phones and tablets) and help him regain a balance with other important activities?

The most important first step is that you have to really decide this is what you want to do, and you need to put a plan in place to make it happen. Then you have to be determined to weather whatever storms and tantrums ensue. Because you know this is not going to be easy. You know that your kids are not going to like it or agree (otherwise you wouldn’t be trying to figure out what to do).

That was the most important step. Now are you ready for the hardest step? You need to unplug yourself – and get your spouse to do the same. If you have to finish your game of Solitaire before you answer “yes?” to your child’s question, then you’re going to have a tough time getting him to buy in.

Parenting would be so much easier if kids responded well to ‘do as I say not what I do’ but it just doesn’t work that way. Yes – I know that ‘it’s different’ for adults, and there are times when we simply can’t be without our phones. But have a think about this. Can you honestly say that every time (or even 50% of the time) you are busy on your phone, you are handling something that couldn’t be put on hold for an hour or two?

Even very young kids can tell the difference between a social chat or text, and a call where you’re dealing with a work or family crisis. But if they can’t figure this out, you need to calmly explain why you need to finish your tech communication before you can attend to them. Don’t use the fact that the call will be quick (‘this will only take a minute’) as justification. But do keep them waiting if a call is important (if Grandma has fallen and is on her way to hospital, or you’re still on work hours and there’s an issue to deal with at the office).

Now that we’ve covered your commitment to change and the importance of modelling this change, what else can you do? Some parents take a strong approach to the issue – they install monitoring software on all tech devices, or they simply lock them away. This can work well for some, or for a while, but in the end, most kids learn to outwit software controls. And as for confiscated tech toys, they simply wait until you’re having a weak moment or not looking to get them back. Essentially, these are shortterm solutions and, in the process, not a lot of behaviour is changed, which really is the end goal. So, how to do this? One effective strategy is to focus instead on positive behaviours and activities that have to be done before devices are switched on. These might include homework, walking the dog, or running an errand. Simply getting your child to spend 15 minutes outside, playing with a ball (with phones left inside), will do wonders for interrupting the constant tech connection.

Positive reinforcement for effort put in (not results) goes a long way. Kids become motivated by how good they feel about helping out and making healthy choices, which means that they are less likely to need the extrinsic motivation provided by something like a high score on a computer game.

There are some really good counter-intuitive strategies that you can try as well. One of these is to start playing online games with your kids – appropriate ones, with managed times. This will help them see that not all tech is ‘bad’ and that you’re happy to share some of the good stuff with them. Allowing your child to teach you how to play, help you work through strategies, and then laugh over the joys and defeats will help you find more common ground. It will mean some good (real life as opposed to virtual) conversations can begin.
If you’re feeling a bit daring, find a family show that you can all watch together. The best ones are exciting and usually have awesome plot lines that draw everyone in. There will be different series options for every family, but talk to friends as this is becoming a more common strategy.

The most important part of this is that all family members have to be present for an episode to play – even if this seriously limits viewing opportunities because someone, for whatever reason, is not around a lot. Everyone has to also pledge that they will not sneak ahead. Look for older shows that have been running for a few seasons rather than new releases (online spoilers add angst if a new episode airs on a day when all of you can’t be at home).

If the pledge is honoured, you’ll end up with an incredible ‘us’ time as a family; everyone will enjoy the fact that ‘we’ watch this show together. Doing anything as a unit helps to connect members of a family and if you can discuss the latest plot developments and which characters are evil or silly or make a bad decision, you’ll find yourselves connecting in a whole new way.

If you can find a good series that engages your group, you’ve found a way to get them off their personal tech and into a family moment. It goes without saying that all devices need to be out of reach and on silent while a show airs. Remind your kids that not a lot of crises actually happen on a given night, so an hour away from their phones will be survivable.

And, this is important. One of the greatest predictors of future success is the ability to wait to get something you want. This self-control, this being able to put your phone down as needed, for as long as needed, shows others you are present, listening and thinking about what is being discussed, not what’s pinging on your phone or iPad. The message that this gives to the other person is that they are important, that your conversation is the one you are attending to, and that you are focusing on them and their needs. It’s a powerful way to strengthen a relationship.

This works really well in the business world, but it’s a real game changer if you can get it happening in your family.

Long-time DB resident Lorraine Cook (M.A. Psych) relocated to Canada earlier this year. She now provides counselling and therapy online, and you can email her at [email protected]

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