We know that the amount of time that children are online is increasing, with very young children routinely spending over 8 hours a week and 12-15 year olds spending over 20 hours a week online. With the summer holidays in full flow, social media is often a constant presence on kids’ iPads, smart phones and computers. While most parents understand that digital is just a part of life for children now, and of course many mums, dads and carers spend time online doing similar things themselves, they want to be confident that their children are living a healthy online life.
The internet wasn’t designed with children in mind, yet a third of its use is by children and they themselves tell us they see no difference between ‘online life’ and ‘offline life’. To them, it’s just ‘life’. The digital world is an amazing place, but it has few rules, is vast and fast moving. I know many parents feel out of their depth or are even scared to challenge their children’s use of the internet and social media and are looking for some simple advice. That’s why we are launching a new campaign called Digital 5 A Day. It is a guide for parents to help them to encourage their children to enjoy the online world without being totally consumed by it.
I don’t think parents should be afraid of children’s digital lives – but what they should avoid doing is allowing their children to use the internet and social media in the same way they would use sweets or junk food given half the chance. You wouldn’t let an 8-year-old eat a double cheeseburger and fries every day of the year, so it’s important children aren’t left to use smart phones, computers or tablets without agreed boundaries. It doesn’t have to be about restriction and control – which is unlikely to win over any child anyway – but something children will often love: working out together a good way to be online.
So our 5 A Day guide promotes a positive relationship with technology rather than being too restrictive and is actually based on the NHS’s five steps to mental well-being. We’ve placed those in a digital context and think it gives parents guidance and children room to explore and learn while keeping them safe. Importantly, it encourages them to do so themselves.
The 5 elements of a good digital diet are: connect, be active, get creative, give to others, be mindful.
Connect: The internet has enabled everyone to maintain friendships and family relationships, no matter where they are in the world, and children often say that chatting with friends is the best thing about social media. It’s important to acknowledge that this is how children keep in touch but it’s also important to have a conversation with them about privacy settings. Remember to keep a dialogue open and talk to your child to understand how they’re spending their time and so that they can come to you for help should they need to.
Be active: physical activity is very important for mental wellbeing and all children should have time to switch off and get moving. Children don’t have to be an athlete to be active. Find something that they enjoy – be that swimming, walking or dancing – and begin at a level that works for them and make it a regular activity. Researching an activity or place online before going out is a good way of combining the two and provides an opportunity for you to use the internet together.
Get creative: The internet provides children with unlimited opportunities to learn and to be creative. From learning to code to building complex structures in Minecraft to creating video content, the summer can be a great opportunity for children to grow their digital skills. Time spent online doesn’t have to be spent passively consuming content. It can be educational, creative and can provide opportunities to build skills for later life.
Give to others: As well as using the internet to learn about how to get involved with local and national charitable schemes, children can give to others through their everyday activities. Remind children that by giving positive feedback and support to friends and family as well as reporting the negative behaviour of others, children can help the web make a positive place for everyone.
Be mindful: We hear that children often feel pressured by the constantly connected nature of the internet. While they might want to do other things, it can be difficult for them to put their phones down when apps are encouraging them to engage. Being mindful about the amount of time that your child is spending online – and encouraging them to be mindful about how this makes them feel – is important. Encourage children to come up with ways of managing this i.e. keeping a diary as way of logging the amount of time they are spending online or downloading an app that helps them manage their notifications.
Taken as a whole, and supplemented with parents own ideas about what they want for their children, I hope 5 A Day will be at the very least a starting point for parents to tackle one of the modern parenting world’s newest and biggest dilemmas and help children to lead the way as active digital citizens.