We can start by debunking the myth that screen time is bad for children. The truth is, screen time is not bad for children. Excessive screen time is bad. Picture: AP
Last week I was called in for an interview at an international radio station regarding the topic of children and screens. This is a highly relevant topic, especially during this time of the year when the holidays kick in and parents have to deal with the children being out of school.

Nearly every parent wonders if spending time in front of screens, be they computers, laptops, tablets or phones, is harmful to children. There is so much contradictory information out there that many parents don’t know what to think.

Others are concerned about the vast amounts of unsavoury content out there and how to protect children from it. There is no shortage of pornography, violence, prowlers and bullies out there in cyberspace.

The question is, what is a parent to do?

We can start by debunking the myth that screen time is bad for children.

The truth is, screen time is not bad for children. Excessive screen time is bad.

There are a number of sensational reports in the media, such as the occupational therapist who called for banning 12-year-olds from using tech, to stories about Silicon Valley tech chief executives who do not allow their children to use devices. While these may or may not be true, one thing is certain: they are implausible.

I cannot imagine a child today who is not tempted to use gadgets. The technology is ubiquitous, the temptation is real and children are children. If they are normal, they will not simply be content with the prohibition - they will find a way.

Unless the parents have the time and resources to implement 24/7 “big brother” type surveillance on their children, my guess is they are using gadgets behind their parents’ backs.

In my two decades of working with children and their parents, I’ve seen a recurring pattern: where parents are too hard, children rebel. If we try to deprive them of gadgets at home, they will not only despise us, but they will also find gadgets elsewhere.

So, what is the solution?

I wish there was a simple solution, but as a parent of three boys I know that parenting is not easy and like with all things relating to parenting, managing how our children use technology takes hard work and consistency.

Firstly, we need to look at things from our children’ perspectives and embrace technology.

There is a lot of good and the first step to finding it is to stop having a negative outlook.

Secondly, we need to become a part of our children’s technology experience. There is no better way to guide them, spend quality time with them and, above all, build trust.

The mistake most parents make is to stay aloof, but this comes from our own fears and perceived inadequacies - we are afraid because our children know more than us.

My response is, so what? So what if your child becomes the teacher and you the student? With the right mindset, it can become a fun and wholesome family experience.

There is no substitute for spending quality time with our children. When there is a relationship of trust built up, there is a much better chance that children will not take advantage of the privilege of using technology by going over the bounds or viewing inappropriate content.

Of course, there are a number of parental control apps out there, but ultimately my personal mantra is this: “Good tech is no substitute for good parenting.”

Next, we need to find good digital content. A parent mentioned to me recently that they she and her children have a lot of fun with audio books. Sites like Audible.com offer tens of thousands of audio books for a monthly subscription.

There are also a number of free online audio book libraries like LibriVox and Project Gutenberg.

My children are lazy about reading. I tried really hard to get them to read, but without success. Then I stumbled on Audible. Now, we select audio books together as a family and listen to them for an hour before bed. They absolutely love it. They even listen on the drive to and from school.

At the end of each listening session, there is a short family discussion about the current book. Once a book is complete, each family member posts a brief review on their Goodreads profile. Goodreads is a social network for sharing book reviews. Think Facebook, but for bookworms.

Finally, as parents we need to put into place house rules regarding tech and daily limits need to be implemented and respected. For children up to 12 years old, I strongly recommend no more than two hours of daily screen time during the holidays. This is by far the hardest part to accomplish. There will be dissent and dissatisfaction, and maybe even a civil war, but ultimately, we as the parents can never surrender.

* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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