12 min read

Our children in cyberspace

They say too much of a good thing is bad, and when it comes to the amount of time our children spend using mobile phones, laptops and games consoles, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest ‘they’ had their heads screwed on. But precisely what ‘bad’ effect is all that screen-time having on our children, and as parents, do we think it’s an issue we need to do something about?

Three children sit on a red seat looking at an iPad.

How technology can effect children

According to the education and technology site Edudemic, spending too long using technology causes elevated exasperation levels in children and a noted decrease in their patience levels. I’m not surprised by this – think about having to look up a fact in a book, for example, when you’re used to simply typing a few key words into Google. It’s a wonder they have the patience for anything! Cutting edge technology panders to the instant-gratification generation and patience is not the only attribute to suffer. Without the need to spend time getting ‘out there’, finding other children with common interests and making friends – rather than simply joining an online group set up for fans of One Direction, for example – parents are worrying that children are losing the ability to communicate face-to-face.

We shouldn’t assume our children are feeling friendless by this lack of real-world contact: in fact the average teen has 201 Facebook friends, which would make me feel rather popular! These friends aren’t just barely-known names in a list, either – 37 per cent of teens send messages to friends every single day using the social networking platform. Also, keeping up to date with these contacts has seemingly never been so important: almost a quarter of teenagers log on to Facebook over ten times every day!

So, if our children have such a thriving social life, shouldn’t we be proud of them and their networking abilities? Perhaps, but there is a down side to all this virtual interaction.

Technology overuse

Edudemic names two more ways that overuse of technology has influenced children: declining writing skills and lack of physical activity. According to findings from Ofcom’s paper ‘Parent’s views on parental controls’, parents are concerned with a decline in perceived ‘traditional’ skills such as handwriting and spelling, brought about by too much time using screen-based devices.

What about exercise? Well, a lessened interest in physical and outdoor activities is a big and valid concern for many parents, since there is a connection between the length of time children spend using media and their well-being. The Institute for Social and Economic Research found in 2011, that UK children who had access to computer games, games consoles and the internet at home for under an hour on a normal school day reported better well-being than those who used these technology types for four hours or more.

“34% of parents check their child’s social network sites to see what’s going on.”

Capping usage

As parents, though, would we let it get to the stage where our children are spending over three hours using technology on a school night? The Office for National Statistics’s ‘Measuring National Well-being – Children’s Well-being’ 2012 paper shows that only six per cent of children chat online for four hours or more on a school day, compared to 26 per cent who chat on the internet for less than one hour.

While I find this latter figure reassuring, I do wonder whether these lengths of time are imposed by us as parents, or whether they just represent varying habits? What I mean to say is: do we have control?

According to a recent infographic by The Parents Zone, over half (60 per cent) of parents think they should have total control over their child’s social media use, and this doesn’t just mean the length of time spent online: 34 per cent of parents check their child’s social network sites to see what’s going on. But is this the best way to ensure our children are safe in cyberspace? You might miss something, or even misinterpret something as you check up on your children’s online activity. So in my opinion, the advice given by the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) on the subject is perfect: talk to your children about their online technology use. 

Discuss the specific issues that face children – cyberbullying, sexting, managing their time – and the thing that will daunt many of us: integrate yourself into your child’s world by becoming better educated about the variety of technologies your child is using. Another tip from the AAP gives us a clear, simple message: don’t fear social media. The implication? Because our children are dedicating a lot of time to it we need to get clued up to help them stay safe.

Written by Lisa Wood

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