Tech a break: why it's good to avoid using iPads and iPhones as ‘digital dummies’ during the holidays

Parents should avoid their children becoming 'transfixed' by digital media like iPads and iPhones during the summer holidays and encourage a 'talk not tap culture'. 

Priory's Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Clinical Director, Priory Group Wellbeing Centres, said that while access to digital media was educationally helpful, and iPads and iPhones relieved the boredom of long journeys and enabled working parents valuable 'time off', excessive screen time was limiting meaningful conversation within families.

She pointed to an article in the Archives of Disease in Childhood suggesting a child born today will have spent a full year of 24 hour days glued to screens by the time they reach the age of seven.

Dr van Zwanenberg spoke ahead of National Unplugging Day (Sunday June 26) when parents are encouraged to turn off digital devices for 24 hours and break free from technology.

She said that some screen time was useful, and enjoyable, in the lives of young people, and in the summer holidays was inevitable.

But devices were sometimes used as 'digital nannies' or 'digital dummies' by those eager to keep children endlessly entertained.

Taken to excess, screen use contributed to health problems such as obesity - and also left children exposed to the dangers of cyber bullying.

"Children are still trying to establish their identity. Often they have not developed sufficient coping skills to manage their emotions, especially when engaging with social media," she said.

"And the peer pressure and bullying they receive on social media can be very frightening, relentless and on a global scale. Any mistakes a teenager makes online, or any exposure to their private actions, might be recorded permanently and shared globally, to devastating effect.

"We also need to remember that teenagers are constantly on their digital devices posting items as a way of seeking 'likes' and approval. They use social media as their main source of affirmation, and often form disastrous conclusions about themselves, or their futures, as a result of criticism or any type of humiliation."

The unseen pain of cyber bullying

Dr van Zwanenberg also states cyber bullying is rife, but its consequences are often not anticipated.

"Many young people engaged in what we call cyber bullying do not even realise the impact they are having. Young people who post criticisms only see a computer screen, not their target's body language or facial expressions. Young people are also very impulsive when they post. For the victim, social media can have a devastating impact, especially if they already have low self-esteem or symptoms of depression or anxiety. Allowing vulnerable teenagers exposure to negative social media, or unmonitored social media use, is something many doctors are concerned about."

She urged parents to start talking to children at the age of around 7 or 8 about the dangers of social media.

"It should be as commonplace as warning your child about the dangers of cross the road. Set the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable and ensure young people know that intimate personal detail is private. Young people are often far more receptive to this information than teenagers.

"Often car journeys can be a good time to discuss something with your child as you have their undivided attention (if they put their phones down). I would talk through stories of young people who have received a very difficult time over social media and not known how to cope with it."

Dr van Zwanenberg's advice to children

1. Think before you post.

2. Do not encourage or “like” peers’ posts that could be considered unkind by others

3. Do not judge yourself by the number of 'likes' you have on a post - it is meaningless

4. Remember if there is a post that distresses you, it might be misconstrued by you. The person posting it might be being driven by a desire to be popular, rather than someone who harbours negative beliefs about you.

5. If you are distressed by something or someone on social media, turn it off or block them

6. It is fine to turn the internet off. True friends will still like and respect you.

7. If social media is causing you distress, tell an adult you trust. 

8. Often young people are flattered by attention on the internet but if something goes wrong, you could be exploited.

For more details on the full range of Priory Children's Services, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to make an enquiry.