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Back to school: don’t let screens disrupt

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As summer comes to an end and kids go back to school parents everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief that the kids are going to finally be out of the house. Summer’s great, but by the end of the holidays if you’re not exhausted, you must be some sort of super human. As moms and dads everywhere get the backpacks ready for school, it’s more than likely that we’re popping a phone inside too. It’s tricky to find the balance though between the usefulness of modern technology and its potential to disrupt, distract and absorb. While it might have seemed reasonable to let the kids use screens a lot over the summer, school time comes with challenges of its own.

School time challenges

For a start there are social pressures associated with spending every day mixing with a group of peers. There’s a lot of social pressure on kids to keep up with the popular TV, be listening to the right music, playing the right games, joining in on social networks and messaging apps and generally being a part of what everyone else is doing. This is a natural part of finding their place in the world, and important to their development, but of course screen time shouldn’t be allowed to take over completely.

Homework needs to be done, family time and full nights of sleep need to be had and time for physical and creative activities also needs to be made. In fact there can be so many demands on the time of our kids that it can be real struggle to keep them meeting their various commitments. It can be tempting to let family time be the area of life that takes a hit for the sake of other things, especially as kids themselves (especially teens) will often encourage this approach.

In actual fact though family time is absolutely vital for healthy development, there’s another area of life that would be much more appropriate to cut down on. Screen time has insidiously become such a widespread and mainstream element of life that we don’t even realise quite how much of our lives it takes up. Recent studies put average daily screen usage by children in the region of 6 to 9 hours a day.

Addictive technology

This is obviously a massive chunk of their time. And that number doesn’t even include use of screens at school. “Educational technology” refers to the use of technology to improve classroom outcomes. A lot of schools have started using digital format lessons and are encouraged to do so by a relentless technology lobby. They claim that it helps facilitate learning and improving performance. But they don’t talk about the addictive nature of screens and how even classroom screen time can build up their dependence.

Phones and tablets are designed to hook people’s attention. and then we realise that we spend too much time with screens. Psychologists use the term “persuasive design”, to explain the process carried out at tech companies by “attention engineers”, who help designers punch the right buttons in our brains, so that we keep coming back for more.

Nowadays more and more scientists and political leaders are urging the public to fight smartphone addiction. The main reason is that using technology and electronic media negatively affects children’s health and development. Even tech leaders try to keep away their kids from screens as much as possible. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that gadgets fragment our attention, so that it harms our educational and professional success. If a child spends large portions of the day breaking up their attention, to take a quick glance, to just check Snapchat, it can reduce their capacity for concentration. Furthermore, excessive screen time can lead to mental health problems, sleep disorders, obesity, relationship problems and an inability to develop imagination.

Finding balance

As technology continues to make it easier for our kids to watch videos or play games on every kind of device, parents need to keep in mind its potential negative long-term effects on their health and take action.

Finding the right balance between screen time and other areas of life is one of the modern worlds biggest challenges and our kids need all the help they can get to get it right. This is especially true because of the use of “persuasive design” by game and social media app developers. Children and teens can’t be expected to make decisions in their own best interests, especially considering the range of biological, social, psychological and technological forces pitted against them. A consistent set of family technology rules, regular conversations about the role technology plays in our lives and if necessary parental control tools to place limits on screen time are essential. 

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