How to cherish digital kids in the real world

Joanna Michaels, Beyond Social Buzz

How long should kids spend online? These guys might know something we don’t:

• Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates didn’t let his kids use smartphones until they were 14. 

• Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel limits his kids’ screen time to an hour and a half, every week.

• Apple founder Steve Jobs said ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’

• And perhaps the toughest verdict on tech, from Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired and founder of ‘On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.’

Tech wary parents

So, are those who invented the technology that surrounds us, among the most apprehensive about its effect on children?

There’s a growing trend among the Silicon Valley tech-elite. They want to limit their kids’ access to tech devices and social media. This starts with ‘no phone use’ contracts for their nannies.

And low-tech education has taken off in the Valley, just as most schools in the UK rely increasingly on laptops, iPads and online homework.

Low-tech teaching

While I send my kids to starter coding classes, parents in Silicon Valley send theirs to alternative schools such as Montessori or Steiner Waldorf. 

At these schools, there’s no screen time for younger children and limited, monitored access to technology for older students.

The mission of this low-tech teaching is to cultivate creativity and handwork. It’s pens and paper, water, clay, wooden toys, sawing and knitting. It’s growing vegetables. Basically, it’s everything that isn’t technology. 

There’s little doubt these students will enter the digital world at some stage, and could end up in tech careers. But first, the schools want them to learn from physical experiences. They will develop problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and social intelligence in the real world rather than the virtual one.

High status

Unsurprisingly, this teaching trend has become a new phenomenon: having ‘tech free’ kids is a sign of status and privilege. 

Studies from the US show that children from low-income families spend 3 to 4 more hours on screens each day than those from wealthier homes. 

Your choices

Though sending your kids to a Steiner school might not be an option, it’s worth thinking about the tech choices you make for your children. 

Though the jury’s still out on how the digital world affects young minds, experts recommend providing kids with a varied mix of learning experiences. For me, it’s about using technology as a tool to manage and own, as opposed to letting it ‘own’ us.

3 practical tips

Here are some practical tips to consider:

  • Encourage your kids to have a productive goal in mind when online, at least some of the time. For example, can they search for a recipe to make a cake, find instructions on how to build a game, or gather facts to tell a story. (And don’t forget to be a role model here. We scroll, they copy). 
  • Talk to your kids about what they enjoy online. You’re not going to know the ins and outs of every social media platform, whatever your intentions, but keep engaged. Now’s the time for open and honest communication, not zoning out. Check which apps or sites they’re using and do it often. Ask them what they are interested in and why. What’s fun? What’s frightening? What’s confusing? What questions can you help them answer?
    • Create a schedule for your kids’ tech activities, with their help. Set out what they can do, for how long, and how often. Talking and setting boundaries together is better than imposing bans and tough rules without discussion. Approach it as a family, with age appropriate schedules for each child.

I’d love to hear how you’re supporting your child’s digital wellbeing. What works for you?

If you’d like to hear more about digital wellbeing and how you could support your child in the online world:

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