While my husband and I were beached in Rarotonga last October, sipping cocktails in a very tall glass and enjoying the tropical breeze, we watched our boys swimming in the ocean, building creeks in the sand and swinging from thick, long ropes attached to trees. Drew, 13, and Logan, 10, had forgotten about the IPods and IPads they had left at home, in our small rural town of Rotherham. Their gadgets had been replaced with sun, fresh air, exercise, new friends and a good sleep at the end of an action-packed day.
Yes, sometimes gadgets are an easy option for entertaining our kids for hours, giving us adults some much-needed peace and quiet. But that peaceful holiday gave me time to reflect on some serious questions about technology and its influence on our children. Are gadgets over-crowding our children’s lives? Are our children losing their ability to play with toys and invent physical games, just as they had done - before gadgets became part of their lives?
Longitudinal study Growing Up In New Zealand, from the University of Auckland’s Centre of Longitudinal Research, followed seven thousand children and their families from conception to two years. Its report, Now We Are Two found that around 80% watched TV or DVDs daily at age two, compared to the 66% who had books read to them every day. Why are one in three children not being read to daily? Are parents using gadgets as educational tools? The report also found that one in seven kids had already used a laptop or child’s computer system.
Associate Professor Susan Morton of Auckland University, also Research Director of Growing Up In New Zealand, described today’s children as “digital natives”, noting that many use technology with an ease that amazes their parents. “We can begin to appreciate how families and environments have changed for children over their early years and how these changes influence growth and development,” Morton explains.
With parents using technology more and more in their own lives, it is now part of most pre-schoolers’ environments. By the time a child starts school, most will know how to use all types of technology. “Some children have the confidence to sit down and teach the teacher!” says Canterbury principal Ginny Macfarlane. Today, her Rotherham Primary School students use laptops, IPads and interactive white-boards, which are all wire-less. “We can now teach reaching far outside the classroom, corresponding with other schools and extending our global knowledge,” Macfarlane says.
Although most teachers and principals think the use of technology in the classroom is a good thing, they warn parents not to neglect books. Research shows that reading to your children is crucial. “It’s important for socialisation with Mum and Dad and for extending a child’s knowledge and imagination,” Macfarlane explains. “It teaches a child to read, increases vocabulary and an interest in words. Picking up a book creates a physical connection.”
Although combining education with technology has plenty of positives, there are also some negatives. Macfarlane has noticed differences between the children she teaches now and the children she taught 20 years ago. “Physical development is behind - for instance, holding a pencil in class or catching a ball. Children struggle with processing information and socialising.” Screen time equals access to instant, flashy and fast information, and Macfarlane believes this is having an effect on a child’s memory. “It’s very important, more than ever, to get children to use their five senses again to help develop their brains. Things as simple as teaching your child how to tie their own shoe laces is just one simple example that will help with this.”
She suggests that, rather letting your children stare at a screen, you could encourage them to get outdoors more or play sport, which will be very good for their co-ordination and also for their socialisation. “New Zealand is in a good situation for this and children have sports stars as role models to look up to, like the Silver Ferns and the All Blacks.”
Helping your child find a good balance of socialising, learning and playing with and without technology is critical. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that parents should limit their children’s screen time to no more than two hours a day. As for the rest of the time, good old-fashioned, manual play on the floor with your children will go a long way towards how they start to see the world, help with their development physically and mentally, and will also develop a strong bond between a parent and child. What’s more, throwing a ball or showing them how things work will encourage good practical skills and develop their fine motor skills.
My two boys are very different from one another when it comes to gadgets. I’m lucky that both of them are very physical and sporty. Logan, my youngest, loves to kick the ball around on the lawn as though he is in an All Black game, blowing his whistle and shouting the score. Increasingly though, I’ve noticed he is tending towards playing games of rugby on our IPad. I have to remind him to put it down and get outside and play real rugby. But who can blame him? Computer games are fun. My oldest son, Drew, is also very physical and sporty. He’s never really been interested in computers. When he first started using them at school he came home and said, “Mum, every-time I use a computer it gets a virus!” He’s just not that into them. In fact, if he had a choice he probably wouldn’t want to use one. But when he turned 13, we bought him his very own IPod to use for keeping in touch with his friends via social media and taking photos. All in all, my husband and I feel like we are constantly monitoring and finding a balance with both our boys and their use of gadgets.
Marina Shearer, mother of nine-year-old twins, Jessica and Ashley, works hard to encourage her children with their other interests. She doesn’t deny there is plenty of gadget time going on in her home in Waiau, a small town in North Canterbury. Both the twins have access to an IPhone, IPod, IPad and laptop but the twin’s passions are currently off-screen: skate-boarding for Ashley and making jewellery for Jessica. “They could spend hours and hours doing these activities but they could spend all day on gadgets too if I let them,” Shearer says. “So I take Ashley to the skate park and Jessica to the jewellery supply shop. You have to be involved in the alternatives.” When Shearer invites the twin’s friends over to play, the rule is, ‘no gaming with friends’. “If I push them they play monopoly, jigsaws and do puzzles for example. I enforce 20 minutes of reading a book with their friends, but they think this is torture!”
Making rules and sticking to them is one of the best ways to parent when it comes to technology. But managing a child’s time on gadgets is one of the main frustrations that parents seem to have. With wire-less technology available in most homes, gadgets are becoming more portable and children can quite easily sneak them under the parental radar. That’s why it’s important to keep one eye on the children and what they’re looking at and the other eye on the clock – or even set a timer. Time flies when you are having fun.
Canterbury flight attendant Rachael Paterson, also mother of three girls aged 7, 10 and 14, struggles with the exhaustion that comes with monitoring technology in her girls lives. “They still play but my 14-year-old is always on her phone or IPod. The girls sneak them into their beds and use them when they are supposed to be asleep. I then use their gadgets as a form of discipline and take them away from them.”
There is no doubting that technology is here to stay and that its future is un-imaginable for us. It’s a case of having to learn to live with it. Whether we like it or not, this is the world our children are growing up in and we can only guide and support them through it as best as we possibly can. In a perfect world, technology would only be used in schools for educational purpose and I would still be on that beach in Rarotonga with my husband, sipping on my next cocktail, with my children swinging from those long, thick ropes.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Do you think it's important to limit technology time with your children?
Liz Florance says ...
Well written Tracey. I definitely think that we should limit technology time with our children. As a grandmother I am witnessing my grandchildren getting lost in the world of games etc on their cell phones to the point where they do not even know we are talking to them. I think they are a marvellous learning tool in the right place at the right time.
Lorna McLeod says ...
Great article Tracey! I also agree that the basics of reading to our kids right from when they are little is imperative to developing their wee minds.... I have also noticed that children are finding it more difficult to engage in imaginative play... perhaps due to technology but I also think it's perhaps because they are so used to having an adult play with them all the time. I love that I can tell my boys to get outside and play and see them pulling each other around in boxes behind their bikes and going on bug hunts. In saying that my boys are also allowed time on the iPads 👍🏻👍🏻
Kath Taylor says ...
Hear hear Tracey. What a great article. You have missed your calling. A reporter I'm thinking! I so agree with you. Our kids are some of the few with no 'I' anything. Whilst they would love one, I am dead against it. If they are really good they may get to play on technology a couple of times during the school week, and our compromise is that they can play x-box in the weekend for up to 2 hours. Kids grow up far too fast that they need to be 'kids' for as long as possible.