How can we help children to become digital ninjas?

One of the biggest issues for parents of adolescents is that most grew up in a world without 24-hour access to digital technology. How can we help children to successfully navigate the pitfalls of digital media when we ourselves feel like we are often operating in the dark?

How can we help children to become digital ninjas?

Left: Marina Gardiner-Legge (Heathfield School), Middle: Jenny Eastwood (The Parent Practice)

The Independent Schools Show in Battersea Park provided a useful platform for discussions surrounding the pitfalls of growing up in the digital age and how best to help children manage their digital use.Jenny Eastwood, facilitator at The Parent Practice, a company that provides parental advice and parenting classes, explained that the vast majority of parents feel that their children know more than them about technology and can increasingly feel out of their depth. “We hear a lot about the downsides of technology,” she said. “It’s addictive; children will be vulnerable to cyberbullying; they might see inappropriate images; they’re becoming desensitised; what’s it doing to our children’s brains?!“We can feel like we are in the middle of a storm and are powerless to help, but that’s not the case.“Digital is here to stay. Our children will always live in a digital world, our job as parents is to turn our children into responsible digital citizens.”
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To better understand the adolescent perspective and why children behave the way they do, Ms Eastwood went on to explain some developmental changes that occur in children’s brains during adolescence (around age ten for girls and 12 for boys). 

What is going on in the adolescent brain?

  • Peers become increasingly important with a growing detachment from parents
  • The area of the brain that produces the feel-good hormone, dopamine, becomes increasingly sensitive. This explains why playing and winning a video game or attracting a Facebook like is so important
  • Teenagers are less aware of risk and so can easily post something inappropriate without thinking of the consequences
  • The importance of status grows – a need for ‘likes’ and ‘shares’
With this knowledge parents may feel more sympathetic towards an adolescent’s needs for Facebook likes or their inability to put down a video game, but it is a difficult phase to manage. Ms Eastwood provided some practical tips.

Tips for managing digital use during adolescence

  1. Stay away from “tech-bashing”. Parents need to handle a child’s digital use with empathy, showing that we understand that it is good fun but hard to put down. She suggested that setting up a “technology contract” is a good idea. This is where you get together as a family and talk about your family values that you want to guard during your digital use. Each member of the family then signs the contract.
  2. Think about when children might need a phone. Most children only get a phone when they are travelling alone for the first time (often when starting secondary school.)
  3. Make a rule that no digital devices can be used in the bedroom. “Have a drop zone where everyone puts their phone before bed,” said Miss Eastwood. “Adolescents need 9-10 hours sleep a night and they will struggle to sleep if you add in the blue light and ‘pings’ from their phone. A disturbed night’s sleep will mean that they will be unable to deal with situations the next day.”
  4. Think about having phone-free time, for example phones off during mealtimes or at the weekend only checking phones once in the morning and once in the evening.
  5. Model good digital behaviour as a parent

Schools and parents working in partnership

Marina Gardiner-Legge, head of Heathfield School in Ascot gave a head’s perspective of the challenges ahead.She referred to a recent report by gaming trade body, UK Interactive Entertainment (UKie)Online safety: a pupil’s perspective ­which revealed that it is not all doom and gloom: 73% of the pupils surveyed said that they felt that their parents understood online safety.Ms Gardiner-Legge counselled of the importance of schools and parents working in partnership to enable students to be responsible digital users. “I want young women to be able to leave my school knowing how to use Instagram positively and to be able to look at LinkedIn and understand how it works.“We cannot simply ban students from using social media. It’s up to us to help students to understand the risks associated with its use whilst taking full advantage of everything that social media has to offer.”With this in mind, she made some suggestions as to what parents should look for in a school that is forward-thinking about the use of digital media:
  • Don’t look for a school that completely bans social media said Ms Legge. “A school has to get a child prepared for life. One of the most important aspects of this is self-regulation – teaching them wisdom to know when is the right time to turn a device off.”
  • “Look for a school that inculcates a mind that questions what they see,” she said. That way a child will be able to discern what is credible and advisable
  • Any good school will encourage the development of compassion and empathy. “If you are an empathetic person you are not going to go online and hurt someone,” she said
For parents looking for help and support, Jenny Eastwood recommends the following websites:The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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