Lead your children into digital age

Many children, who crave connection, become peer-attached and cling to their phones as the lifeline that seems to preserve their connection to others.

Many parents worldwide today are raising the first true digital natives despite being digital immigrants themselves.

The challenge lies in being able to lead our children into this age instead of just following them. Many children now have unprecedented access to information, entertainment and connectivity – especially to their peers – but is this what our children really need?

If the goal is to raise them to be socially and emotionally mature global citizens who are resilient, compassionate and adaptive, then the answer is “no, this is not what they need”.

These issues are making parenting more challenging and have the capacity to adversely impact the conditions under which our children flourish.

David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist, states that it takes societies anywhere from 100 to 200 years to develop the cultural rules and rituals around the use of new tools. We don’t have this type of time when it comes to raising our children. We need to become conscious of the conditions conducive for healthy development by turning to developmental psychology, attachment theory as well as parenting intuition and insight.

The greatest need our children have, that must be met for healthy development to unfold, is that of human attachment. Attachment is how we fulfil our children’s instinctive needs for contact and closeness and is the single most important factor that influences the trajectory of their growth.

Every child needs at least one present, caring, emotionally available adult to help engender a sense of belonging.

Attachment for a child is about who they feel they are the same as, who they are loyal to, who they want to be significant to, cared for by, as well as share their secrets with. The answer to what our children need most of all is love.

The key issue here is that your child needs to have developed a sense of trust in the safety of a loving and caring parent-child relationship that has evolved from the first years of life and onward. Children follow and learn from caregivers and grown-ups around them that they are attached to.

What is clear is that our relationships with our children cannot be replaced by all that comes with this new digital age, but there are clear signs we are being challenged to hold onto our children.

I see many older children become peer-attached and cling to their phones as the lifeline that seems to preserve their connection to others.

Many children find life boring without their gadgets and connectivity to social media.

Often we as parents worry that our children are becoming addicted to their gadgets, while simultaneously being preoccupied with online activity ourselves. Some experts argue that it is pointless to completely forbid gadget use, as we cannot monitor our children 24/7.

More than likely children will secretly find ways to access a gadget, if not at home, in all probability with friends or at school.

We should ask how we, as caring adults, can help our young people learn to manage their time in a media-saturated society. The best way to manage a child’s online experiences is to discuss the reasons for setting limits as well as to be a good example to them. Family and parent-child relationships are at risk if we do not limit gadget use for all, parents and children.

There is still hope in this otherwiseunhealthyinterpersonal dynamic. Since we are the ones who often kick-start this cycle by withdrawing too much of our attention from our children, we have the power to change it.

Here are some strategies that parents have found very helpful:

Anticipate: If you are expecting an important message, tell your child ahead of time. Let her know you don’t like breaking away and that this is an exception.

Plan B: If you suspect you may need to take a call when you are with your child, set him up with a simple activity while you are engaged. Try to make the call brief by agreeing on a better time to chat or email back. Tell your child that if he doesn’t interrupt your call, it will go even more quickly.

“Thank you”: Give a child a quick and simple affirmation for waiting: “Thank you, John, it’s not easy to wait and you really helped Mommy a lot.”

Respect the call: Briefly tell your caller or texter, “Great to hear from you. I really want to focus on this. But I’m with my children right now. I’ll call you back in XX time.” This demonstrates respect for both your caller and your children.

Post-call re-connect: Make it a family habit to do something nice with your child after you’ve interrupted your time together. It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular. Just a little cuddle or an encouraging comment about the way his picture is turning out or how her jump/dance movements are really improving.

Glance and return: If you cannot unplug completely, allow yourself to glance at an incoming message. But unless someone’s reporting that his “hair is on fire” tell your child, “It can wait until later.” This way you not only keep track of your messages but also communicate clearly that you are not pulling away from her.

Sneak checks: Before checking your phone, make sure your children are thoroughly engaged in an activity – and unlikely to need your help – or otherwise entertained or helped by another grown-up.

Phone-free times: Decide on certain times of the day when unbroken time with your child is paramount and shut your phone down completely: perhaps after school check in; homework time; meals; and/or bedtime.

Commit fully. No quiet ring or vibrate alert. Just turn the device off.

Include your children: If your child has their own phone, set clear boundaries about its use.

He should know to put it away when the family has company, and particularly when it’s family time.

We need to lead our children into this new age and introduce them to their new tools and technologies when they are ready and mature enough to handle all that it comes with.

We cannot send our children into the digital world empty-handed with only their technological tools in tow.

Maturity is the prerequisite for true digital citizenship, and to that end, parents are still the best “devices”.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.