Words by Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The Lighthouse Arabia
Many parents and educators feel helpless when thinking about how to manage their children’s technology use. It is unrealistic to think that children will not be exposed to digital devices in today’s world, especially since COVID. However, one thing that might make it easier for them is to consider the uses of the devices and limit the usage of entertainment technology and allow for educational technology. Let’s face it, most of us are not worried about our children spending hours on their devices doing multiplications, we are mostly concerned about their attention spans, their use of social media, and their addictive behaviors to gaming.
Studies have found that both technology and social media platforms can leave children, and adults, with feelings of anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep patterns, the potential for cyber-bullying as well as distorted body image. It is important, if not essential, for parents to consider the dangers of excessive use of entertainment technology and educate themselves and their children on how to best use their smart devices so that they are not being overly exposed to unhealthy messages, while maintaining a sense of balance and mental wellbeing.
So what are some steps parents can take towards this?
- Anchor yourself and your parenting in your values. If you let the latest gadget or trend drive your parenting behaviors, you will likely feel groundless and unanchored…anxious. If you anchor yourself in your values and make your decisions from that place, and be okay with not being liked by your children for a little while, then you are going to feel more grounded as a parent and will mostly likely be more consistent in your parenting. Think about what type of adult you want to raise and build your parenting style around that. If your child says ‘everyone has Instagram” and you agree to them having Instagram on that premise, you are basically giving them permission to “do whatever everyone else is doing.” If you explain to them that other people base their decisions on other things, and you are basing it on science of addiction and your family values, then you are teaching them an important life lesson: how to make decisions from the inside out.
- Before you have conversations with your children about entertainment technology make sure you do your own homework. Know the pros and cons of entertainment technology, ready about the addictive nature, be clear about why you are not wanting your child to engage in it yet or have limited engagement with it. If a child senses your hesitancy or lack of knowledge, they will bulldoze over you with their tech savviness and emotional manipulation. Two great websites for parents to keep up-to-date on popular traditional and social media are Commonsensemedia.com and SmartSocial.com.
- Consider your child- There is no ‘right’ age to give a child a smartphone or access to entertainment technology. There are some young children who are mature, while some teens who are more prone to addictive behaviors and recklessness. Just as you would when you invest in a pet, you consider whether your child is ready for such a responsibility, know your child before you hand over a device or gaming console. Is this something that they have the maturity to responsibly use?
- Teach your child and stay up to date with new information. When psychologists or doctors get their licenses, they have to have a certain number of continuing education credits to maintain their license. Taking from that practice, as parents, and children use technology, it would be good practice to keep up to date with your own personal continuing education on the latest apps, their pros and cons, and how to best use them. It would also be important for children to learn about digital citizenship, cyberbullying, and how to interact online. Remind them that the internet is essentially storing everything they say and do online, and once they have said it or done it online, that is placed on it, forever. Do not do anything online that you would not want your employers to know or would not want printed on the front page of a newspaper the next day.
- Implement rules, and follow them yourself as much as possible. Do not be afraid to implement a digital blackout at home, such as while having dinner and an hour before they go to bed. Keep all devices out of the bedroom to be charged. A recommended amount of digital time, of course, depends on the child’s age, however, a rule of thumb would be that they should have engaged in all the ‘must do’s’ before they can engage in entertainment technology. This means they have done their homework, engaged in physical activity, read for 20 mins, had their meals, showered, before they can go online.
As a community, we should also encourage governments and educational institutions to develop and offer age-appropriate technologies and standards. This is where educational arenas need to further develop. There is a necessity to integrate mental health awareness and lessons within the core curriculum so that our children are better equipped with a tool kit so they can grow up to be emotionally intelligent and aware adults. Prevention is key.
Lastly, if your child is showing signs of mental health illness, it is imperative you seek help early.
As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families. Dr Afridi has worked with prominent companies and ministries such as The Executive Council, The National Program for Happiness and Well-being from the Happiness Ministry, many professional service firms and fortune 100 companies in her bid to dissolve mental health stigma and be at the forefront of the mental health movement within the UAE and the region. Dr Afridi’s vision is to make mental health practices more accessible through licensing and insurance reforms, changes within the education system to teach about mental health and emotional and mental wellbeing from a young age, taking a preventative approach to mental health rather than treatment-based approach. Seeing the need for increased mental health literacy, she took the initiative to bring the internationally acclaimed Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) to the UAE in 2017, with The LightHouse Arabia becoming the only licensed provider for the evidence-based course which enables adults and teens to become accredited mental health first aiders. Dr Afridi is committed to leading and being at the centre of the continued positive mental health changes to be seen in the region.