The Blog

When - And How - To Unplug Your Child

Whatever age your child, restorative sleep is crucial to mental health. Remove electronic devices from your children at least an hour before they should be going to sleep (and never leave devices charging in their bedrooms).

As parents, we are witnessing constant technological invention that enthrals our children. But the 'tap not talk' culture worries us, and it is hard to establish boundaries at home and be confident that we are taking the right approach (and that this approach is based on what developmental and mental health experts are seeing).

I'm often asked by mums and dads for practical advice, based on 'The Evidence' and my clinical experience of treating children's mental health. So I'd like to share it.

It probably comes as no surprise to most of us that, according to Ofcom, 32% of 8 to 11-year-olds and 79% of 12 to 15-year-olds have their own smartphone. So children are walking around, or at home, with direct access to the internet, day and night.

My 11-year-old told me that four of his friends are communicating via an online game at midnight on school nights because their parents do not remove their iPads from their rooms and "just trust them". Teenagers need, on average, nine hours sleep a night but many are getting 7-7.5 hours or considerably less because of internet use.

Many young people tell me that they wake themselves up at night to ensure they are not "missing out" on messages.

Tip 1:

Whatever age your child, restorative sleep is crucial to mental health. Remove electronic devices from your children at least an hour before they should be going to sleep (and never leave devices charging in their bedrooms).

Tip 2:

Avoid any digital devices for children under the age of 2. Recent research by the American Academy of Paediatrics suggests that for children younger than 2, the benefits of digital use are really limited if non-existent.

For children aged 2-5, the same study by the professional organisation for paediatricians in the US, said that the more complex thinking skills essential for school - such as persistence, being creative and thinking flexibly, are best taught through unstructured and social play, not digital devices.

So limit use of devices for children aged 2-5 to one hour a day (which should be supervised). For children aged 5 -10 continue to limit use to as close to an hour a day as possible, and for children and teenagers aged 10+, keep their use to under three hours per day.

Tip 3:

Do not assume your children are playing a 'safe' game online. They may not be or they may be assimilating lots of other unhelpful - or dangerous - information. For girls, this could include information on extreme diets.

Sadly, I have children as young as nine or 10 coming to my clinic who are self-harming. I ask them where they have learned how to do this. They nearly always say "on the internet".

Try to look at what your children are doing on the computer or the iPhone. Talk to them about adverts and any incorrect information - or digitally enhanced images - to which they are constantly exposed.

Keep computer use to communal family areas, so children know you could look at what they are doing at any point.

One of the main tasks of adolescence is to develop self-identity, so young people do this by testing out things, seeing what people 'like' and 'dislike' about them, and making comparisons. The main way to do this is on the internet because there is often an instant response. But we all know that people tend to put perfected digital images of themselves out there. As a result, young people are striving for a false perfection - in their lives and, physically, in themselves - and it's damaging their self-esteem.

Tip 4:

Encourage activities that involve meeting and seeing people, such as attending clubs, having friends over, or just going to shops. All these offer opportunities to build self-esteem and allow for healthier social comparison - away from the digital world.

I am seeing an increase in anxiety disorders in my clinics. There seems to be a snowballing number of young people that are just not learning the social skills needed for face-to-face interaction, so they get anxious when they have to engage in it. They struggle to work out things like the personal space between people that is needed for conversations, and how to read facial expressions and emotional cues. Some find small talk almost impossible.

Tip 5:

Ensure as a family you are having ample quality time together, ideally on a daily basis and certainly at weekends and during the holidays. As parents, ensure you 'role model' limited use of technology, so you're not constantly on your iPhone yourself, and make sure you engage in small talk and a wide range of conversations about the world with your children. You will be teaching them vital skills.

Tip 6:

Although young people push boundaries and at times get really angry about rules "being so unfair", deep down boundaries do make them feel safe. As a parent, you are absolutely doing the right thing having clear, consistent boundaries around new technology, so feel confident in enforcing them despite the short-term fall out it might cause. Your children will thank you for it - eventually.

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