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Does your child want a tech present this Christmas, but you don't know if it's a good idea?

The truth is that this technological evolution is the greatest social experiment of our time and as parents we are in uncharted waters, writes child psychologist Colman Noctor.

Colman Noctor

THIS IS THE issue that seems to be troubling a lot of parents this Christmas and so I have decided to put together a comprehensive reply which will hopefully help to guide parents around this dilemma.

I get the impression from anxious parents that they are imagining that if a smartphone or an XBox is introduced into their home then their children will grow up to become socially phobic computer warlocks who will spend their entire adolescence in a bunker in the basement surrounded by multiple screens and a fear of sunlight.

Optimistic parents, on the other hand will convince themselves that their child will show a natural aptitude toward technology and so maybe if Santa brings a Ps4 console they will become the next Steve Jobs? After all they were able to operate the DVD player and unlock their parent’s phone and search YouTube since they were 3 years of age, so surely they must be gifted.

The fantasy that is created to allay their worries is that they will be spending their future summer breaks visiting their grown up tech gifted child in their mansion in Silicon Valley and all will be well.

Don’t want them left behind

The last alternative is to not allow Santa to bring any tech gifts into the home. However, the worry in this scenario is that these parents will be responsible for rearing a child who does not know how to survive in a world full of technology.

Therefore, their child will be unable to get a job or mix with their friends because they have been ‘left behind’ by their tech-gifted peers and it’s all their parents fault.

shutterstock_195104909 Source: Shutterstock/Bloomua

For parents of girls, the worry is often about an over involvement in social media.

Parents worry that their daughters will get an iPhone and become a screen-obsessed online socialite who will be end up taking 1,000 selfies a day and setting alarms to wake herself through the night so that she can log in to her 20 social media sites so as to not miss out on the gossip of her ‘overconnected’ world.

Another – even worse – fear for parents of daughters is that they will become an object of pursuit by an evil sexual predator and they will be in possible danger of something happening.

For parents of boys the fears often concern their sons becoming obsessed or addicted to gaming. The imagined fear is that if they introduce gaming into their son’s life, they will be removing fuses from the fuse box in their homes at 4am to put an end to the 12-hour ‘Call of Duty marathon’ that their son refuses to finish.

Although all of these outcomes are possible they are not nearly as prevalent as we imagine. In most cases a child’s relationship with technology tends to be far less dramatic or severe than these scenarios suggest.

Thankfully the outcome of your child’s relationship with technology ending up being positive or negative can be largely influenced by the role of the parent in mediating this complex relationship between a developing child and seductive technology.

shutterstock_336928517 Source: Shutterstock/Subbotina Anna

The key to avoiding these scenarios is to become involved in helping your child develop a healthy relationship with technology from the beginning and here are some tips on how best to do that.

The technology in and of itself is not the problem, it is our ‘relationship’ with technology that can become problematic. Like food, alcohol or anything that can become problematic in our lives, the determining factor is the relationship we form with the activity rather than the activity itself.

You decide the usage

This is where the parenting role comes into play. Rather than buying the device and leaving your child to ‘find their own way’ or be led by their peers on what is ‘appropriate usage’, you need to, in your role as parent, begin a process of cultivating your child’s relationship with this technology.

This involves teaching the skill of ‘regulation’ which incidentally is not the most developed quality in childhood or adolescence. This will take some work and responsibility which as parents we must be willing to embrace.

Much like the gift of a puppy demands parents to become involved in feeding, walking and cleaning the dog, despite the pre-Christmas pledges to do so, the introduction of a tech device demands a similar form of follow on labour.

This approach can borrow from our management of junk food and snacks. Screen time is a kind of junk food of communication, i.e. fine in moderation but should not supplement the meat and two veg of face to face communication.

You need to mediate your child’s relationship with technology. You need to start your supervision tight at first and relax it as they display a degree of ‘cop on’ with the device.

This is especially true for devices that have a capacity to connect to the outside cyberworld. This includes smart phones and any other social networking capable devices such as online games consoles.

How to stay safe

You need to observe your child’s communications with the outside world and coach them on how to keep safe and be respectful. You can then step back as they display a degree of responsibility and maturity in that space, but this needs to be done carefully.

You need to decide if your child has an adept awareness of the online ‘stranger danger’ principles and you need to teach them how to manage situations where this is a possibility. This evaluation of your child’s interpersonal awareness is a far better indicator of their readiness to be in this unsupervised online space than something as arbitrary as age.

shutterstock_197500751 Source: Shutterstock/Valentina Proskurina

I know 12 year olds whom I would have very little concerns about them being online and I know 17 year olds with whom I’d have grave concerns about their online behaviour. So in short, age is not a reliable indicator for savviness.

With gaming devices you need to establish clear boundaries of permitted usage and use a ‘when/then’ approach. This is where you give screen time dependant on other tasks being completed:

When you complete your homework you can go gaming for 30 mins.

This teaches the child the priority of certain things and positions screen time as something that comes after other more meaningful tasks.

Sticking to a routine

Once boundaries are established, like permitted slots of time for tech activities, depending on other tasks having been completed, it is vital to stick to this routine and only adjust according to the child’s ability to manage that relationship.

It is tempting to allow a binge of screen time over the Christmas period but remember this is not advisable to continue in the longer term so start as you mean to go on and remember it’s much easier to grant extra time than it is to rein it back in.

The choice of device is less important than the child’s relationship with it. We have many concerns as parents as to what the effect of the technological revolution will be on our children’s lives and these concerns are valid.

Our worries are that ‘computer mediated communication’ will usurp face to face communication and this will have long term effects on our children’s social ability, their development of empathy and their capacity to relate to others. There is also the concern about the ‘always on’ nature of technology.

shutterstock_224915245 (1) Source: Shutterstock/Solis Images

We are worried that this will minimise our children’s ability to regulate themselves and therefore will result in them being intolerant and impatient young adults who are unable to develop any skills of coping with adversity.

These concerns are indeed valid and ones that I as a parent and a psychotherapist share. The reality is that we do not have any clue as to the extent of the impact of technology is having on our lives, despite certain studies that claim to know otherwise.

We are in uncharted territory

The truth is that this technological evolution is the greatest social experiment of our time and as parents we are in unchartered waters. Therefore, we need to think about our own relationship with technology and also our children’s relationship with it too.

My advice is to introduce technology into all of our lives with care, supervision and boundaries.

We need to ask questions of its impact on our mental lives. It is crucial to protect the meaningful aspects of emotional development by allowing our children to develop their skills of regulation and communication alongside their skills of online savvy and technological proficiency.

One of the most important places to start is to look at our own relationship with technology.

There used to be a view that all parents were technological luddites who were clueless and their children had all of the tech skills. In some cases this may be true, but a large majority of contemporary situations involve parents who now have their own smartphones and they can navigate these devices with ease – but they too struggle to regulate.

What now emerges is a hypocritical approach where we badger our children to come away from their screens as we the parents are glued to our own devices.

This is problematic because if you are telling your child to turn off their devices while you spend hours on your phone, it’s the same as telling your child to eat their porridge as you have a packet of crisps for your breakfast. It dilutes all credibility to what you are trying to promote and therefore is destined to be ineffective.

The first role of becoming your child’s tech life coach is to manage your own relationship with technology and realise the impact of this in terms of a positive or negative outcomes.

Remember it does not have to be an either/or situation when it comes to your child’s relationship with technology. There are many different possibilities between being tech ignorant and tech obsessed. Rest assured that your role as their parent will play the most important role in the eventual relationship your child forms with technology.

Colman Noctor is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in St Patrick’s Mental Health Services and is a part time Associate Professor in Trinity College Dublin. Colman has a special interest in the impact of technology on our mental lives and he is the author of ‘Cop On, what it is and why your child needs it to thrive and survive in today’s world’ published by Gill & MacMillan earlier this year.

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