Developing digital wellbeing

Many parents are concerned about the amount of time their kids spend using digital devices, however, research shows that it's how they spend this time, and their relationship with technology that matters most.

Much more than previous generations, today’s young people rely on technology in their education, their social life, and to interact with the world at large. However, while technology provides fantastic learning and creative opportunities for children, it also presents an infinite number of ways to distract them. The part of the brain responsible for impulse control – the prefrontal cortex – is not fully developed until around age 25, so young people need boundaries around technology use to ensure they have a healthy relationship with technology. They also need guidance on how to stay safe in the online world, and how to get the best out of tech while ensuring it doesn’t negatively impact their health.

Raising children in a digital world can feel overwhelming for parents; here are seven tips for supporting the digital wellbeing of your family:

1. Tech-free zones

The kitchen table should be a place for everyone to put their devices away completely. An ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach will help prioritise family relationships and interactions. Keeping devices out of your children’s bedrooms and limiting use to common areas of the home will help keep you in the know about their online activity, and reduce any tendency towards secrecy or inappropriate content.

2. Digital curfew

Some of the biggest health problems associated with excessive tech use stem from a negative impact on sleep. Devices like phones and tablets emit blue light which suppresses production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. Reduced sleep quality can affect concentration, academic performance, and mental and emotional health. Ideally devices should be put away at least 90 minutes before bedtime.

3. Set time limits

While parents should focus on understanding how children are using technology rather than just the sheer amount of screen time, setting limits is still important. I suggest using a timer – kids typically react better to an alarm going off than a parent going off! They’re also less likely to protest if they know in advance how long they are allowed to use a device, and get a warning five minutes before time’s up. Invite your child to set the timer themselves – the more control they feel, the more responsive they will be when the buzzer goes.

4. Be critically minded

Encourage your child to think critically about the information they consume online, especially on social media. For example, ask them to think about who created the content – are they a trustworthy source? Do they have an agenda or something to gain? Remind them that social media is a carefully curated ‘highlights’ reel, and does not necessarily reflect what people’s real life is actually like.

5. Empower children to stay safe

We teach our kids about ‘stranger danger’ from a young age, but we should also make sure they know that people are not always who they say they are online. Social media sites are usually set to ‘public’ by default, so make sure privacy settings are at the highest level from the start. Kids should never post their address, phone number or date of birth online, even with the highest privacy settings in place. Talk to your child about their internet use, asking about who they talk to online – be interested but non-judgmental. This will allow you to recognise any potential issues, and make your child feel more comfortable to come to you if they have anything they are concerned about.

6. Remember – the internet is forever!

It’s important your child understands that every comment they make or picture they share online is tracked and recorded, even if deleted, creating a digital footprint that could come back to bite them later in life. A good rule to follow is if you wouldn’t be happy for your grandmother or a future employer to see something, don’t post it. Another is to never write anything that you wouldn’t say to someone face-to-face.

7. Balance screen time with green time

Make sure time online does not come at the expense of time outdoors. As long as kids are getting enough time each day to play and be physically active, get enough sleep and interact face-to-face with family and friends, we can stop obsessing over their screen time because it's unlikely to be harmful.

When should I be concerned?

While it is difficult to distinguish between normal teen behaviour and potentially problematic tech use, there are warning signs that your child may be developing an unhealthy relationship with technology – for example, a decline in academic performance, or withdrawal from activities they usually enjoy, such as sports or hobbies. Acting aggressively when they can’t access technology can also indicate an unhealthy dependency on digital devices.

Keep in mind that occasionally, intense use of technology can be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue. If you are concerned or you notice changes in your child’s usual patterns of eating or sleeping, or in their behaviour, it might be time to check in with your GP.

Technology is here to stay and the challenges parents and children face in the digital age are constantly changing. So one of the best thing parents can do is to get involved! Co-viewing, especially with young children, can help them relate what they see on-screen to real life and support their language skills. You can also direct them towards educational apps to support their learning, such as ABC Reading Eggs, rather than using devices as a digital pacifier. For older kids, using technology to play games and be creative together teaches them that screen time can be a fun shared experience, helping to enhance family relationships and keep communication open.

Brad Ridout, Child and Adolescent Psychologist

Brad is Deputy Chair of the Cyberpsychology Research Group at the University of Sydney. Brad presented on this topic at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead recently.

Read the Children and screen time factsheet by Kids Health