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Can we broaden our children’s experience by limiting our screen time?

Know your limits?

Prescriptive parenting is in the news again this week as Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, weighs in with her views on the pernicious influence of electronic gadgets. In an interview with Parliament’s magazine, ‘The House’, Ms Morgan advises parents to limit the amount of time children spend playing with iPads and the like, insisting instead that they return to the more traditional pleasures of Lego and Playmobil:

‘I do think that, speaking as a mum, when my son says “I’m bored”, I say “Well just go away and find something to do, you’ve got lots of toys, lots of things there”. And then suddenly I will find that my son is busy, has dragged something out, he’s amusing himself, and I think that there is an element of not needing every moment in the day to be filled.’

How much is enough?

I’m sure most parents would like to see their children learning, playing and growing in a variety of ways – outdoor exploring, role play, model-making and creative activities. It’s nigh-on impossible to ignore the appeal of computer and console-based games for our children, but how much is enough and should we be looking to limit the amount of time they devote to screen-watching?

While it’s true that children will find something to play with, even when their choices are pretty limited, they’ll naturally want to be part of whatever fad is popular with their friendship group. In the pre-digital age of our childhood, schoolyard favourites toggled seasonally between skipping, yoyos and circle games, while our poor parents had to endure a succession of innovations including Etch-a-Sketch, Cabbage Patch dolls and Transformers.

Then, as today, demand was created through advertising and peer pressure – though, admittedly there’s considerably more of both in the 21st century.

Turning the tables on technology

My friend, Sarah, moved to Botswana for a spell when her daughters were fairly young. They enjoyed an outdoorsy life there, swimming, playing with friends and camping out in the huge garden. The telecoms infrastructure wasn’t very sophisticated and Sarah had to go in person to a shop in the local town each month to pay for a package of TV programmes. They didn’t take payments over the phone, so if Sarah hadn’t managed to get to the shop to top up her account, the programmes would just stop.

After a while, the family just got used to being without the TV – especially as lots of other residents didn’t have one. When Christmas came around, Sarah found herself with an interesting conundrum: the girls didn’t know what to ask for. Back in the UK they’d had no difficulty in preparing the usual extensive wish list, but without the pressure of peer acquisitions or of TV advertising, they were well and truly stumped.

Are you leading by example?

Of course, our children take their cues from the adults around them, as well. If we spend all our time with our eyes fixed to our phones, posting messages on Facebook and Twitter, reading the latest news or texting or friends, it’s hardly surprising that our children want to mimic our activities. If we’re setting rules for our kids, maybe we need to set some for ourselves at the same time?

Some things that might help us manage the information overload:

  1. Treat gaming/tablet/PC time as part of your child’s overall learning-play-development experience. Try involving yourself in the games that interest them and see if there are some you can play together, especially if that gives them the opportunity to become the teacher instead of the pupil for a change.
  2. Make sure you give your children the attention they need when the occasion demands. If you’ve promised to watch them perform in a play or at the swimming baths, don’t spend all your time checking your emails or corresponding with friends – they’ll value your commitment (and will notice if you’re not watching).
  3. Have some gadget-free zones that allow you to enjoy family time together without the distraction of phones or apps – when you gather at the table for meals, for instance, or when you’re playing board games or having a TV movie night. Why not set aside some time for reading to yourselves and each other?
  4. Set guidelines for your child’s screen time – have a discussion about what you all think is reasonable and agree some rules. If your child has been consulted, they’ll be much more likely to think it’s fair.
  5. Make sure you offer your child some exciting alternatives to sitting in front of the screen – a trip to the park via the ice-cream shop, a paddling pool in the garden, a cookie-baking afternoon or even a film-making session with some Lego models and an iPhone.

If we really want to encourage our children to limit their gadget time, we need to show them how it’s done!

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