Have you ever come face to face with a techno-tantrum when you’ve wrangled the tablet, smartphone, computer or TV away from your child?

Are you worried your child is becoming addicted to technology and you feel helpless about the situation?

Are you trying your best to get your children outdoors and playing in nature, only to have to drag them away from their screens in order to do so?

If that sounds familiar (and I’ll raise my hand as we battle this in our household too), you’ll love this blog post.

Today I’m joined by Dr Kristy Goodwin, one of Australia’s leading digital parenting experts (and mum who also has to wrestle devices from her children’s clutches!)

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Kristy translates the latest research into practical and digestible information for parents trying to navigate the digital terrain with their kids (without telling you to ban the iPad, or unplug the TV).

Kristy takes the guesswork and guilt out of raising kids in a digital world and I love it how she arms parents with facts, not fears about what young kids really need to thrive online and offline.

Our kids will inherit a digital world…. it’s here to stay…. so we know digital abstinence is not the solution. Kristy’s here to help us find the solution that’s right for our families.

What led you into being a leading digital parenting expert?

I’d been an early childhood and primary school teacher for 13 years. Then I did a PHD looking at technology and its impact on young children’s learning and development.

I worked as an academic for a while but I became a frustrated because I could see all this wonderful research being done, but academics are terrible at disseminating that research to the most important people. Having been a teacher, I knew this research wasn’t leaving academic gates.

Then I experienced what I call life’s greatest equalizer, and I became a parent for the first time. During one of my visits, the clinic nurse didn’t know what I did for work being a Children’s Technology Researcher and she said started to ask me what apps I was using with my son, who was six months of age at the time.

At first I thought this was a trick question, that she was trying to set me up as a bad mum for allowing screen time, but she proceeded to tell me that my six-month-old son would fall behind if he wasn’t being introduced to the iPad!

Now being a first-time mum, I foolishly made the appointment at 9am and hadn’t had a coffee, I was tired and a bit incoherent. I went home to gather my thoughts and I was flabbergasted. Here was a health professional giving inaccurate advice. At the same time, I had girls in my mother’s group asking me “Is it ok if my baby lies with my husband and watches sport on TV? Should my baby be watching Baby Einstein DVDs because I’ve heard that they boost kids’ language?”

I realised that there is so much research out there but it wasn’t being communicated to the people who matter most; parents, educators, and health professionals.

After that clinic appointment, I started a social media campaign (ironically), called ‘babies need laps not apps’. That social media campaign went viral and I started to realise that parents don’t have any guidance. Unlike any other parenting conundrum we face, we’ve got no frame of reference because most of us had analog childhoods but we’re raising digitalised kids. We can’t even ask friends with slightly older children how they’ve handled some of the digital dilemmas that we’re facing.

I’m in the digital trenches too, my kids are six and three, so I realised first-hand that there wasn’t a lot of research-based information. Technology is a very polarising topic but what I wanted to do was take the research and science and make the accessible, practical and digestible for parents in particular, but also for educators and health professionals too.

Is saying no to technology the answer?

Times have certainly changed, especially now that we live in a tsunami of screens. Everywhere we turn, we live in this screen-saturated world. We need to limit kids’ use of technology and restrict what they can access, when they can access, and how they can access. But whether we love it or loathe it, our kids will inherit a digital world.

Digitally amputating our kids is not the solution. Banning it, avoiding it, making it toxic or taboo, isn’t helpful for our kids. What we need to do is to teach them healthy ways to use it. Teach them to use it in ways that are congruent or aligned with how they develop, and at the same time balancing.

I talk to parents a lot about balancing screen time and green time. If we use it the right ways for the right amount of time, then it can certainly help our kids. But like anything, it it’s used excessively or inappropriately, it can derail their development.

What are some of the benefits of screen time?

Great question. I’m pleased you’ve taken a positive stance on this Laura, because unfortunately the media tends to demonise kids and technology. There were recent media reports claiming that it was like digital cocaine. A lot of the headlines aren’t grounded in scientific research. They sometimes take snippets of research, or they take a little bit of science and mix in a little bit of myth, and create these outlandish headlines that scare parents.

I’ve been in a privileged position where I’ve conducted research studies in classrooms with children, where we’ve measured positive benefits of kids using technology.

Some of the benefits for kids is that technology can allow children to understand abstract concepts. If you think about subjects like maths and science, there’s often quite abstract concepts and when we present them on a screen, kids can dynamically interact and experiment with them.

Websites and apps can give kids instant feedback. When they get instant feedback for an incorrect answer, this forces their brain to undergo cognitive conflict. They know they’ve made a mistake and must rectify that error there and then, to be able to proceed in the game/app/website. With traditional learning experiences, such as a text book or worksheet, not even the most amazing teacher could provide that instant feedback to multiple kids in the class.

For young children who are still developing their fine motor and literacy skills, technology can be a great compensation tool. Children with additional behavioural or learning needs, will also benefit from technology as a compensatory tool.

Technology has many positive benefits, it can allow kids to communicate in new ways, it can allow them to collaborate, and to access information that we often get access to with books etc. There are definite benefits if we are using it in the right ways, for the right amount of time.

Using technology as a tool, with an intentional purpose, and for a functional reason, is far more beneficial than using it as a digital babysitter or entertainment device. That’s a critical distinction to make.

What are some of the negative impacts of screen time?

If we use technology incorrectly or excessively, then there are definite risks particularly for young children. The neuroscience clearly tells us that about 85% of a child’s brain architecture is established in the first three years of life.

If children are using screens for disproportionate amounts of time, it’s simply an opportunity cost. They’re not being able to meet some of their basic developmental needs like physical activity, play, language, forming relationships, and sleep. Screens, if used for too long, have the potential to displace important developmental priorities.

There are also potential risks to children’s physical health. We’re seeing increases in children’s rate of myopia (nearsightedness in children).

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.1 billion people will suffer from noise induced hearing loss in the next few years because of incorrect use of headphones. Most parents and teachers are surprised to hear this but most commercial headphones can reach 130 decibels but safe levels for children are between 65 and 75 decibels. But every kids first response when they put headphones in is to blast the volume.

Other risks of excessive or incorrect use include muscular skeletal health. We’re seeing things called ‘Tech Neck’ and repetitive stress injury from children playing for too long an amount of time. There are also potential health risks associated with electromagnetic radiation.

Our jobs as parents and educators as well is to talk to our kids about healthy habits. It’s not about digital abstinence, this technology is here to stay, but how to use it so that’s it’s not eroding their basic needs.

What strategies can help manage these risks?

I often talk to parents about establishing media habits. The number one question I’m asked by parents is “how much is ok?” Whilst we do have screen time guidelines in Australia, most people don’t know that they exist. Up until October 2016, they were very much in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines too.

In Australia, the current recommendation is no screen time for whatsoever for 0-2 year olds. For 2-5 year olds, no more than 1 hour per day. For 5-12 year olds, no more than two hours of total screen time per day. This includes television, iPads, gaming consoles, interactive whiteboards at school; all cumulative screen time.

However, the AAP updated their guidelines in October 2016. They are no longer prescribing screen limits for children aged 6 and above. They’re saying that kids definitely need limits and they’ve developed an online tool here where you can calculate screen time limits. But they’re saying that focusing exclusively on the ‘how much’ question isn’t the most essential thing.

The AAP is also saying now that from about 18 months of age it’s ok to introduce screens. Their recommendation is still only 1 hour per day for the 18-month – 5-year age group. It’s unlikely that Australia will change their guidelines in the coming months or years as they’re quite steadfast in saying that they’re appropriate.

To parents, what you need to do is come up with a screen time limit that is right for your child. We all know kids have different tipping points, for some they’ll only need 10 minutes on the iPad and come off happily, others will have a techno-tantrum.

Then more importantly, rather than the ‘how much’ also consider what they are doing with the technology. Is it leisure? Is it learning? Is it active or passive?

It’s also important to look at when. This is often overlooked but the time of day when kids use screens can have a direct impact, particularly on their sleep and attention levels. For example, we know that 90 minutes before sleep, we should limit the use of any screens, particularly backlit devices such as tablets and smartphones. This is because they emit blue light which suppresses the body’s production of melatonin. Kids are more susceptible to this and they need melatonin to be able to fall asleep quickly and easily. The use of backlit devices before bed and nap time can delay the onset of sleep and over time, these sleep delays can accumulate into a sleep deficit.

Also, how are they doing it? Are they developing those healthy habits that won’t damage their vision, their hearing, their posture, or their health?

Starting to look at those four facets together give us a more comprehensive picture than simply ticking a box saying “yes they’ve only had an hour of screen time.”

Is there more behind techno-tantrums than our kid protesting at not getting their own way?

Absolutely. This will give you some reassurance that techno-tantrums are normal and unlike traditional tantrums they’re not restricted to 2 and 3-year-olds.

What we know is that when we are using technology, and this is more amplified with our kids because their brain architecture is still developing their self-regulation skills, but our brain undergoes neuro-biological changes.

Your child is not just trying to upset, embarrass, or infuriate you, when they have a techno-tantrum it is a neuro-biological response. There are five main reasons that kids have a techno-tantrum.

One of the main reasons is that when they use technology, it’s usually a pleasurable, positive response. Their brains release the neurotransmitter dopamine which makes them feel good and want more and more of it. This is especially the case if they’re playing games or on apps or website where they’re being rewarded and praised for their advancing in the game. It is activating the reward pathway in their brain.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that kids are addicted, it just means that it is a positive response. This is exactly what happens to us when we’re scrolling through Facebook or reading interesting emails or watching cute cat videos on Youtube.

The second reason is that kids enter the psychological state-of-flow when they’re on a screen. This is where they lose track of the concept of time. They become so engrossed and immersed in what they’re doing that they have lost track of time.

This is sometimes why I don’t recommend giving kids a time limit. Most children up until age 6 don’t understand time. This is where giving kids quantities or deadlines can work well. For example, “today you can watch two episodes of Play School then I want you to turn it off.”

The third reason is that our brain is wired for novelty. The prefrontal cortex in our brain is basically your child’s air traffic control system or the CEO of the brain where all the higher order thinking skills take place. This part of the brain is wired to look for new and interesting things. This is where the online world caters for novelty, there’s always something new and interesting.

The fourth reason is that the online world causes us to enter something called ‘the state of insufficiency’. We never feel finished, complete, or done. There is always something else to look at, another episode or video to watch, or another level to get to. This is unlike a lego puzzle or a colouring page, where there is a finite finishing point. We feel complete and there is a clear line of demarcation between being finished and unfinished. That’s one that adults battle with as well.

The fifth reason why techno-tantrums occur is because the nervous system has been overloaded from being in an online world. Adults don’t necessarily suffer from this but our kids do. There is so much that they need to process. The online world has many sensory seductions; so many things to look at, listen to, and now touch. This results in a meltdown and a more often in boys than girls.

These are the five main reasons and they’re normal but we also need to teach kids that it’s not appropriate to be having a techno-tantrum. That’s where having firm boundaries and negotiating quantities of time beforehand can help.

Having a positive transition activity will help avoid the techno-tantrum. Because their brain is getting lots of dopamine, we need to have something that will help bolster that level once they come off the screen.

Get them to empty their sensory cup. Once they’ve been on the screen, because their nervous system has been overwhelmed, giving them green time is the best way to do that. When kids are out in nature, it allows their brain to calm down, recalibrates their nervous system. Getting them physically active and out in nature can overcome some of those potentially damaging effects.

What strategies can you share for parents to keep their kids safe online.

There was a study recently released that found 95% of parents worry about their kids’ online safety. Yet only 16% of us have parental control set up on our devices. One of the reasons is that technology is evolving so constantly that it is so hard to keep up and it seems that our kids and online predators are usually a couple of steps ahead of us.

First and foremost is to talk about cyber safety. The minute you hand your smartphone over to your toddler is when you should start to have incidental conversations about them, and the conversation should be ongoing.

Keep technology in an accessible, visible parts of the home. The minute kids think that it’s taboo or secretive is when they can get into dangerous territory.

Keep technology out of bedrooms. I recommend that families establish tech-free zones e.g. bedrooms, meal tables, cars, and play spaces.

Be involved. Research tells us that co-viewing or joint media engagement i.e. using technology with your child, has huge benefits for kids of all ages. You become ‘cool’, you start to talk their language. One of the rites of passage for kids is to take risks. We did it and made mistakes, but unfortunately now our kids’ mistakes have digital DNA attached to them.

Then set up parental controls. Our eSafety Commissioner here in Australia recently released a report saying that it is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ your child will be exposed to pornography. It’s prevalent and it’s everywhere. I have travelled throughout the country and have had the unfortunate situation of working at many schools where children as young as 8 have been exposed to pornography at school, on the way to school, or in the playground. It is happening.

I recommend a product called the Family Zone, it’s a brilliant cloud-based solution to all your devices. It’s time consuming to set up parental controls on every individual screen in the house. This solution provides a one-stop shop and it travels with the child.

There is no hole-proof strategy but those ongoing conversations are essential and then setting up controls and restrictions as well.

Children as young as those in Year 5 and 6 are starting to use what are called decoy or deception apps. One of them looks like a generic calculator but once a pin-code is entered, it opens a vault where children are storing photos, videos, and contacts that parents can’t access.

Another similar app is a vault app and it provides the same functionality but if the child is suspicious that somebody has found their vault, any incorrect attempts to enter their password will trigger the app to take a secret photo of who is trying to unlock it.

What digital trends are on the horizon?

Augmented reality is on the horizon and already book publishers and children’s toy manufacturers are capitalising on this because they’re terrified that we will no longer purchase real books or toys. So, they’re trying to integrate technology with the physical product. For example, ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ can be read on its own but if you use it in conjunction with an augmented reality app, it brings the book to life and enters your physical environment. Characters from the book enter your screen and the screen uses the camera so that you’re part of the book. It’s incredible.

The education world is rapidly adopting these technologies. Whether it’s through a bring-your-own device initiative or just schools having greater access to technology, we’re going to see a lot more technology on the horizon in classrooms and for learning purposes.

Kids will be learning to code. In Australia, coding will be mandatory from 2018 and part of the National Curriculum from preschool to secondary school.

The iPad won’t disappear and the internet will not become unplugged, it’s here to stay. That’s why we must find healthy and helpful ways to use it and at the same time mitigate some of the potentially harmful effects.

Where can we find you online?

My digital home is drkristygoodwin.com. On the site is an ebook you can access and a Frequently Asked Questions page. I answer common digital dilemmas that parents face by chronological age. You can also submit your digital dilemmas anonymously and I share responses.

I also have a digital home on Facebook and Instagram.

I also released a book called ‘Raising Your Child in a Digital World’, this year. It basically gives parents some guidance around what kids need to thrive both online and offline, with simple, digestible tips, and without telling parents to ban the iPad or unplug the TV.