Children and gadgets
Expert tips on how parents can prevent addiction to phones and tablets
Natalia allowed her 10-year-old daughter to play video games at home. When she turned 12, Natalia sounded the alarm. “Close the door, you're bothering me: I'm playing!” — that was how the daughter would answer irritably to her mom’s question “How are you?”. Natalia was confused: “What should I do?”
Now, Natalya knows what to do. She works as a psychologist at the Early Intervention Center in Minsk and advises other parents how to prevent children from becoming addicted to gadgets, and what to do if the child is already struggling to get away from the phone or tablet.
However, Natalya was confused a few years ago. “I've made a lot of mistakes. I understand this now. I reacted too harshly and banned everything overnight. You know, moms are told sometimes: “You gave birth, and now you have to figure out what to do.” It's like women have a toggle switch to a perfect motherhood mode. And dads develop a third eye. Actually, we're not really being taught how to be parents. You have to learn on your own, learn from others and collect information.”
Natalya described how gadgets affected children’s development; at what age phones or tablets could be introduced to children; and what gadget rules should be for children. She honestly shared her story, too: what mistakes she had made with her daughter, and what mistakes would be better to avoid.
You can discuss this topic in detail with Natalia at the festival titled “Mom, Dad, and I are a Football Family”. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Belarus will hold a series of expert-led lectures on topical issues of parenthood in Osipovichi, Novopolotsk, Brest, and Mozyr.
Even before talking to Natalia, we had planned to compile a list of “life hacks” for parents. A very simple one and easy to understand. If you do this and that, kids won't be gripped by their phones. If you do this and that, you can “get” them out of there.
However, after discussing, we realized that there were no easy ways out. There is a daily job for parents, and only the attention and care of mom and dad will help children develop and use gadgets in a dosed and useful manner.
How gadgets affect children's development and speech
— Parents often come to us at the Early Intervention Centers with the following challenge: “My child won’t speak” or “My child does not speak well,” says Natalia. One of the factors causing this challenge is the frequent use of gadgets by children.
How do we learn to speak? We look at a person and see how her/his lips move. How they fold, how they stretch. You won't see this in cartoons on your phone, tablet or TV.
When we play with a 2 or 3-month-old baby, the baby repeats after us: s/he slowly throws her/his head back, opens her/his mouth, then makes a sound as s/he exhales. For her/him, learning even takes place physically: How do I straighten my shoulders? How do I turn my head? How do I open my mouth?
When children form reflex chains, they need to create a 3D model of objects around them in their heads. You should first look at the object and copy it visually. Then you need to touch it, feel it: how it feels with your hand. And then you even try it on the tooth. Again, you can't touch or twist objects on the phone, you won't feel what they are made of.
If a child, for example, did not roll a tractor on the floor, did not knock on it, did not understand whether it was heavy or light, s/he will not get the full picture. Such a tractor will be just a bright spot on the screen for her/him.
It is widely believed that there are many educational cartoons. You just need to put a screen in front of the child, and s/he will learn everything on her/his own. I understand that parents get tired, and this is convenient: someone will do this work for them. Certainly, something from such cartoons is put off in the head. However, flashing pictures and music won't teach you much.
In addition, children receive a lot of signals and stimuli from screens in a short period. As a result, a sensory system overload can result in irritation, whims, aggression, and hysterics. Children who spend a lot of time on tablets and phones have a hard time learning to write, and their fine and gross motor skills suffer.
Background: Why gadgets are addictive?
If you use smartphones a lot or play computer games, the body over-produces dopamine. In other words, the child feels happy and calm.
Later, at the slightest stress or anxiety, children reach for the screen again: the brain begins to associate it with pleasure. Over time, this becomes a habit, and it becomes addictive.
How to protect children from addiction
— We need to understand why the phone or tablet is in the hands of a child, — Natalia continues. The phone is a working way to calm down and distract the child.
Even when the child screams, s/he sends a message about her/his problems. And when parents give her/him a phone, they ignore her/his wishes. “I don't know how to help you. But I have a phone.”
It is important for parents to figure out for themselves the reasons why they give children gadgets at an early age. The most popular reason is fatigue. To avoid this, a young mother needs the support of her family or friends. It is necessary to meet her basic needs: to feed her and let her sleep.
Another important reason: parents don't know how to play and interact with a young child. They understand how to change baby clothes and a diaper, but not how to deal with her/him. Therefore, we need verified information and even expert support sometimes.
And the most important thing: it is better to avoid the exposure of gadgets to children at least before they turn 2 or preferably 3 years. This will ensure that the child can fully develop. And later, the exposure time should be limited.
Setting the rules: how to use gadgets?
— Children over 5 years old need clear rules. We need to tell your child that we're giving you a phone and you should use it this and that way. For example, you may use it 3 times a day, 15 minutes each.
In order for a child to clearly understand these rules, it is necessary to develop algorithms and rituals. For example, you get your phone after a meal or after fresh air and exercise. Explain that this is not a reward but just a daily routine. Children should not be allowed to use gadgets an hour before bedtime. Gadgets have a stimulating effect on the optic nerves: the quality of sleep deteriorates.
An hourglass is most effective when a child uses a phone or tablet. The hourglass stopped, and we put the phone away. At the same time, it is important that parents do not act as a trigger when the phone is turned off. Use parental control: let it be not you, but the app turns off games, fairy tales, after the set time is up. Mom or dad just needs to explain: the sand will end in the hourglass, and the phone will turn off. Whether the child finishes the game or not, the phone will turn off. S/he or may get angry, upset, but parents have warned.
The most important rule: you need to offer your child something to do other than the phone. This can be challenging: you need to be able to captivate your child, teach her/him how to entertain herself/himself.
And once again, I would like to remind you about the parental control apps in gadgets: this is very convenient.
Personal case: working on mistakes
“I was very strict with my daughter: I just turned everything off at one point,” recalls Natalia. I said, “This is mine, it's not for you. I’ve allowed you, but now I forbid you.” I should not have done it this way.
My second mistake: I did not offer anything in return, not even an unequal replacement.
My daughter felt painful withdrawal for a week, she cried and cursed at me. She even grabbed my clothes and tried to hit me once. I reacted harshly to this. This was also wrong. She wanted support. I betrayed her as a parent: I didn't support her. I abruptly took her away from what she liked very much, what fueled her. In addition, I didn't speak very correctly about those who played such games. I kept saying that games and gadgets were nonsense.
I would have done things differently now. I would stick to the rules I talked about. I would suggest an alternative.
You can miss time with your child and gadgets, but you can also make up for it. However, the further you go, the harder it is to get out of addiction. The aggression of children increases, and even a very cute child can “grin her/his teeth and bite”.
I understand that this is difficult. As parents, we have a lot to do and care about. However, attention and care for children will bear fruit.