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by: Joanne Orlando

Parents have been struggling to contain their child’s technology use to the recommended screen limit of two-hours-a-day. With schoolwork, homework, communication, social media and fun, that limit doesn’t acknowledge our new reality.

But at last authorities have listened and the guidelines for children’s screen use have caught up to the digital age. The guidelines used by the federal Department of Health are based on those developed by the American Academy of Pediatricians. The academy’s new guidelines acknowledge the dramatic change in our device use and the need for children to use technology throughout their day. Even the long held recommendation that children less than 2-years-old should get no screen time at all has been dropped.

The important message from the new guidelines is to shift our thinking away from “screen time” to “screen quality”.

Some new time measures are provided for younger children: one hour a day for children 18-months to 5-years. For children aged six- to18-years, the academy has passed the baton to parents to decide. Parents are asked to take a more nuanced approach and keep check of what their child does on a tablet, computer, TV or other digital device rather than counting minutes.

This is a sound approach as 30 minutes of playing a game that centres on stealing cars and dealing with drug lords (one of the most successful online games in the world) is quite different to spending 30 minutes creating music on a device.

The previous guidelines were developed in the 1990s in response to research on children’s viewing of violent and sexual content.  But the new guidelines are based on recent research that shows that use of today’s interactive devices can have valuable learning benefits. Technology can enhance the development of children’s language and literacy, stimulate creativity and allow children to work with ideas in deep and meaningful ways. The research does not suggest 24/7 usage, but that select quality technology experiences can have benefit.

While loosening the guidelines is a great move for families, it may bring a new kind of stress. Parents often feel uneasy about guiding their child’s technology use. This is fed by the constant berating of messages that tell us that technology is bad for children. It’s a strong message that has led to parental uncertainty about what is best for children and how to guide their tech use.

The guidelines ask parents to take the lead and encourage educational content. However the term “educational” can be quite hard to pin down if you’re not an educator. There are more than 80,000 apps labelled as educational in the iTunes store but not each of them is a quality learning experience. Unfortunately many “educational” apps are not designed by an educator, nor even someone who knows anything about education. A maths app for a 4-year-old that focuses on completing addition sums may have an educational theme but the learning experience the child actually engages can be poor.

The best way to assess if a site or app is educational is to consider what is beneficial for your child to learn and check if the app works towards that. Educational does not necessarily mean a school lesson. Activities that are creative, that stimulate imagination and that allow meaningful connection with others are great. Think developing a music playlist, video-chatting with mum while she is away, using an online recipe to cook, taking photos of the family and creating an online album, using a video to learn how to draw.

Encourage children to apply what they have learnt on their device to an off-screen scenario. Follow-up what your child has learnt online by looking at real-world examples. The more ways a child can apply their knowledge, the better the educational experience.

Doing things together on a device is a great way to understand your child as a technology user and what makes quality educational experiences for them. This can be as simple as playing a game together. Many parents separate their child’s technology use from family activities and this exacerbates their unease in parenting around technology.

Not only will playing or creating together online help with decisions about screen quality, but it is also a great way to bond with and connect with your kids.

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