Creating a Healthy Tech Environment

Fostering a positive relationship between your kids and their devices
April 12, 2019 Updated: May 6, 2019

How many times do you look down at your phone every day, even when you haven’t received an alert? According to a 2017 survey, the average American checks their phone 80 times a day—that’s every 12 minutes!

Receiving text messages, comments on your social media posts, and emails often build a sense of self-esteem, with each message alert triggering a short burst of happiness and even excitement. This leads to addiction, as people find themselves constantly returning to their devices to see if they’ll get the next burst of positivity from someone making contact with them. Soon they crave this feeling and become depressed without it.

Every parent faces the same dilemma: You want your child to be a sociable, informed, and confident user of technology, but you don’t want them to develop an unhealthy relationship with their devices and neglect the real world around them.

What Are the Potential Problems?

One or more of these issues could occur if your child has an unhealthy relationship with technology:

  • Distraction—Various studies have found that children who frequently check their phones are more likely to become poor students. Even without their phones to attract their attention, many of the students in the study were constantly preoccupied by whether anyone was trying to contact them.
  • Impatience—As technology gets faster, our patience gets shorter. We expect instant gratification all the time. A child who doesn’t immediately get a lot of likes on social media might get agitated and check their page more frequently. The danger is that this impatience also manifests itself offline.
  • Self-esteem—Social media often paints everyone else’s lives as perfect, and your child may feel other people are always getting more likes than them. This can lead to a damaging obsession about their online appearance and popularity.
  • Isolation—Some children find that they have more in common with their online friends than the children they meet in the real world. It’s important that your child doesn’t become so wrapped up in their online social life that they neglect their offline friends and find themselves isolated in the real world.
  • Underdeveloped social skills—Communication via the Internet can be very different from speaking face to face. Children need enough offline communication to be able to develop those skills and recognize body language effectively.
  • Empathy—Some people regularly insult or bully others online. If this is the majority of the social interaction your child encounters, they might think it is acceptable behavior.
  • Vision and hearing problems—Excessive screen time can cause eyestrain, blurred vision, and dry eyes; while regularly listening to loud music can cause hearing problems, such as tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) and hearing loss.
  • Neck and joint issues—When you stand or sit upright, your head is supported by your spine. If you are tilting forward to look at a device, you’re putting extra strain on your neck muscles. This can lead to upper back pain and headaches. Gamers are also at risk of discomfort in their thumbs and wrists due to repetitive actions straining their tendons.

How Can I Cut My Kids’ Screen Time?

I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to being distracted by my phone, so I’ve come up with four top tips to avoid being distracted. Encourage your kids to use them, as well as using them yourself:

  • Block more notifications. There are many things your device will alert you to, but do you need to know about all of them immediately? I allow notifications to appear only when a person is communicating with me directly. For example, I allow text messages to appear but not social media posts.
  • Turn on ‘Do not disturb.’ There are very few people who need to be contactable at all times—and your child certainly doesn’t. Most connected devices have a “Do not disturb” mode that silences all incoming communications. In most cases, you can allow certain things to overrule this mode so your child doesn’t miss a really important call. Turn this setting on overnight, and ensure that your child’s phone isn’t kept in their room while they’re asleep—it’s just too tempting!
  • Use the 30:60 rule. Ideally, don’t let your child use their device for longer than 30 minutes at a time. After 30 minutes, they should then spend 60 minutes doing something else—perhaps something active, such as going outside, doing chores, or having a face-to-face conversation. This will help avoid eye problems and repetitive strain injuries. Unless they’re playing video games, watching television, or doing homework, there’s probably not much they need to do online that takes more than 30 minutes. If they are gaming, try using a 60:60 minutes on:off ratio instead.
  • Turn on gray-scale mode. Devices often have vivid color displays, and color can have a strong effect on your brain. If you remove the color, you may find that you check your phone much less frequently. The method of turning on gray-scale mode varies from phone to phone, so do an Internet search to find specific instructions for your model.

Is There Anything Else I Can Do?

Yes, these are all more general strategies that will help ensure that your child has a healthy relationship with technology and that they are safe when using their device(s).

Stay Safe When Out and About

When you’re out and about, you need to be aware of your surroundings. You have five senses, and if your child is using a device with headphones, they are limiting two important senses: vision and hearing. A good rule of thumb is for your child to use devices only when standing still and not while walking or running.

In addition to limiting awareness, using a device while out and about makes your child a target—criminals could see a distracted child with a valuable device in their hand as an opportunity.

Set Tech Areas and Enforce Tech-Free Time

I’m a strong advocate of tech areas and tech-free time for a number of reasons. First, it’s important for children to separate where is and isn’t appropriate for them to use devices. If, for example, you have a rule that no one in the family can use their devices during dinnertime, then you can instill that boundary in your child.

Second, when children use their devices hidden away in their bedrooms or take their devices to the bathroom with them, you can’t keep an eye on what they are doing and how long they are doing it for. This can become a big issue if your child spends a lot of time gaming alone in their room. If you do move your child’s computer or game console to a family room, you can always get them headphones so that the rest of the family doesn’t have to listen in to their game.

Finally, ensure that your child has a tech-free period of time before they go to bed. There’s a growing body of research indicating that the blue light from devices’ screens can affect our sleep and sleeping patterns. The current guidance is to avoid screen time for at least 1 hour before bedtime.

Set a Good Example

Make sure that you aren’t doing any of the things that you encourage your kids not to do. This includes the advice in this chapter as well as that across the entire book. Children have a strong sense of fairness. If the rules apply to everybody, they’ll be much easier to enforce.

Excerpted from “Parent Alert! How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online” and reprinted by permission of DK, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Will Geddes.

With more than 25 years’ experience, Will Geddes is recognized as a leading specialist security adviser. He has worked for royal families, former heads of state, and Hollywood celebrities, as well as FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies. Beginning his professional career in human threat management, Geddes has operated around the world, including in hostile and high-risk environments, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and has been strategically and tactically involved in cybersecurity, counterterrorism, extortion management, emergency extractions, intelligence gathering, and investigations. He also is a regular keynote speaker and an adviser to The International Press and Media Group.