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Parenting in a digital future – Interview with parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson

by Leanne Yong on June 25, 2014

No doubt some of you have children who can’t remember life without smartphones and tablets. But the question is, how do we, as parents, manage this shift in their lives to the online world? What should we be aware of, and how can we keep our children safe? Leaders in Heels had a chat with Dr. Justin Coulson, a parenting expert who is also well clued-in to this new and evolving digital landscape.

These days, it’s common to see young toddlers playing with tablets and smartphones. What kind of limits and boundaries do you think parents should be placing on their children’s use of technology?

To sum up, parents might consider limiting children’s use of devices when their children show an inability to let go of their screen time, or choose not to engage in physical activities, or social activity offline.

Technology is becoming increasingly integrated with our lives – both for adults and for children. In the recent Safeguarding the Future of Digital Australia in 2025 report from Intel Security, 16% of Australians indicated being uncomfortable with the increasingly dominant role of technology in our lives and around a third of parents were unsure of how they felt about the increasing pervasiveness of devices. A further one third of people were genuinely concerned about safety and security associated with the technological changes we are seeing. These issues strike at the heart of what is and is not ok for children, and they are things parents worry about a lot.

It’s challenging to give a blanket statement regarding what kind of limits and boundaries we ought to place on our kids’ tech use though. It depends a great deal on their age. Experts agree that children under 2 shouldn’t have any screen time, kids up to 5 should only have a half-hour per day, and from 5-12 it shouldn’t be more than an hour. That’s TV, computer, phone, tablet… the lot! And it’s meant to be under 2 hours for teens! But why are they using the devices? The broader context matters to some degree.

In general I like the expert’s standards, but I think we need to think carefully before we get too militant about them. Similarly, we need to be wise enough to know when to say “when” as well. If our children are using technology to do useful things or for appropriate levels of ‘down’ time, then we should take that into account. But at the same time we want to balance the cyber-world with physical activity and in-person contact.

It’s probably also worth pointing out that our children don’t draw distinctions between the online and offline worlds like we do. To them, it’s all one world!

To sum up, parents might consider limiting children’s use of devices when their children show an inability to let go of their screen time, or choose not to engage in physical activities, or social activity offline. If children are infants and toddlers I’d advise against ANY screen time. And for pre-schoolers and children in the early school years keep it to a minimum. They don’t NEED it. And they are unlikely to get left behind if they don’t know how to play Club Penguin, Candy Crush, or Fruit Ninja.

Cyberbullying has increasingly come into the spotlight lately, with many parents only discovering it’s happening to their kids long after the fact. How would you suggest parents keep an eye on their children’s online activities without being too overbearing?

It’s so critical to keep communication channels open. Kids can get defensive about these things, so it is really important that they don’t fear getting in trouble.

The first and last answer to this is that we build a strong relationship with our children and communicate consistently. We want to watch out for cyberbullying at both ends – as perpetrator and as victim. When children are young I think monitoring is central to our strategy. When we spot something on our timeline or on theirs that we think is concerning, we can use that as a platform for conversation.

As parents get older there is less cocooning, and more deference. But our children should know we are ‘friends’, and expect that we’ll monitor. (Note, monitoring is different to snooping.) I also encourage parents to talk with their children about cyberbullying incidents that make headlines. Ask them questions about whether any friends have had cyberbullying issues. Have they been perpetrator or victim? How did it affect them? How did it affect others? What else could have happened? How could it be avoided? And ask them whether they have ever had such things occur to them, and to talk about what they would do if it happened to them or someone close.

It’s so critical to keep communication channels open. Kids can get defensive about these things, so it is really important that they don’t fear getting in trouble. Rather, the process is about teaching and keeping them safe.

Additionally, be familiar with the apps your child uses. Talk about why they use them and how they use them. Get them to teach you about them. And if you have concerns about them (particularly in relation to snapchat, ask.fm, kik, and others), work out how they can be safe – either by deleting the app, refusing to respond to messages from unknown addresses, or doing a ‘friend cull’.

Finally, how do you see the increasing popularity of video games (and video gaming parents!) influencing this generation of children?

Gaming is addictive – of that there is no question. But it’s also fun, and it’s how many children and adults choose to relax and spend their recreation time. As long as gaming does not interfere with a person’s capacity to function and contribute, I think this is a development that we simply need to accept and work with.

Featured Image: GSCSNJ

Dr. Justin Coulson is a parenting and childhood expert who runs the Happy Families blog with tips on parenting. He’s been featured on TV shows such as The Today Show and The Project, as well as various radio programs. He was interviewed here as a spokesperson for the Intel Safeguarding the Future of Digital Australia in 2025 report.

Leanne Yong
Leanne Yong is the Leaders in Heels Managing Editor, and a Games Master for an escape room (Next Level Escape). She loves stories and puzzles, and has written four novels.
 
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