As a parent, you are aware of the importance of making sure your children eat a healthy diet. But did you know, that it’s just as important to make sure they use their tablets and smartphones in a healthy way? 

By Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner

Here’s the thing: The tech companies that compete for your children’s attention have now reached a size where the scale of their economies rivals that of many small countries. In essence, what these companies make their living off is making sure that the attention of their users (including your children) stays riveted on their offering so they can resell it to advertisers. What this means is that providers of smartphones, tablets and social media have every reason to use every trick in the book to keep their users’ attention riveted – tricks that include what is known as “persuasive design” (sometimes also known as “addictive design”) and mind hacks – techniques that help accomplish the goals of the tech giants, but which unfortunately turns out to have some fairly detrimental side effects for your children!

Mind-hacks and addictive designs

The way mind-hacks and addictive design work is basically by trying to “install” triggers into your (or your children’s) cognitive systems that operate just below the conscious level and which are easy to fire up. Think of it like this: When you drive your car you are capable of driving and talking with someone at the same time, and usually without crashing. How does that work? As it turns out you have two different modes of operating, think of them as “conscious” and “autopilot”. Any action you take, or anything you need to learn, starts out being managed by your “conscious” system. But once you have sorted it out, like driving a car or bicycling, you can relegate the activity to your “autopilot” where it gets managed more or less independently of your “consciousness”.

For the tech giants this is a godsend: If they can manage to break into your “autopilot” and install triggers that can be activated without your “conscious approval” it means they can, in essence, activate you (or your children) almost continuously and for very long stretches of time each time.

So what are these triggers? On your phone, it’s a mix of notifications and brightly coloured icons… all designed to get the attention of your “autopilot” and getting it to interact with your device. A lot of the design strategy used for smartphone user-interfaces comes from the design of casino games, especially slot machines. Inside social media applications like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat it’s pretty much the same picture, but with even more bells and whistles: Post updates, links, likes, emojis, notifications, friends-feeds, groups, selfie-tech, animations, gifs –– all blended smoothly together in the never-ending scroll of updates to keep you fixed on the screen with your “autopilot” constantly delivering small jolts of dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) into your system to keep you energised and focused.

The world’s largest social experiment

So at this point in time, we have companies with economies the size of small countries, rolling out a never-ending stream of mind-hacks and addictive designs to users that currently make up more than half the world’s population – yes, you read that correctly: Somewhere close to four billion people are currently using some form of social media.

What we do know is that extensive use of smartphones and social media can cause stress, anxiety, sleep disturbances (the chief medical officer UK recently reported that as many as 20 per cent of youngsters now wake up during the night to check social media notifications), depressions, lowered self-esteem, decision fatigue, as well as problems staying focused and concentrated. We can even show that extensive use of smartphones and social media causes rewiring of parts of your brain (a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity).

What we don’t know anything about is the long term effects of all this! The incredibly rapid growth of smartphone and social media adoption has turned into what is essentially the world’s largest social experiment – an experiment we have very little control over and no clear idea of what the long term consequences will be.

Digital pollution is real

Obviously, not every child using a smartphone is going to get hit by every single possible side effect but here are some signs that are worth watching out for:

  • Mood swings– especially anger and frustration if you try and limit your children’s access to smartphones and social media.
  • Changes in sleep patterns– having a hard time falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night (to check their phone).
  • Trouble concentrating– difficulty managing school work on time and having a hard time getting started on homework (the phone is more fun).
  • Being secretive– refusing to share information with you on what they do online or who they interact with.
  • Being more online than offline– the situation where the phone or tablet and social media exerts more pull than friends, sports, family, hobbies etc.

So what can you do if you begin observing some of these symptoms? It’s pretty simple, really (albeit not easy, mind you).

  • Be present and focused. Spend time with your kids interacting with them and stay focused on them: What are they doing? What are they excited about? What would they like to do? Being there for them with your full attention makes a huge difference.
  • Be a role model. Remember, kids don’t do what you say, they do what they see you do. So put the phone away when you are with your kids and interact with them instead.
  • Make their phones less addictive. Get your kids to turn off notifications on their phones and in their social media feeds. This way the pull of the phone or tablets gets less and your children will have an easier time pulling away as needed.
  • Put screen time on a schedule. Make an online schedule with your kids – could be after homework is done, or between 5pm and 7pm, or after dinner, or whatever works in your setting. But make sure you stick to what you have agreed.
  • Introduce alternatives. Try out some of the many good alternatives to being online. Play board games, solve puzzles, read a book, draw, learn to play the piano… The real gold here is doing it together instead of being off on your own.

So in conclusion: Yes children are at risk, but there is plenty you can do about it. It requires being observant and takes discipline on your part as well. But in the end it will all be well worth it, because what you get in return is not just saving your kids from smartphone burnout, but also spending more quality time with them. What’s not to like about that!

What’s the medical guidance?

In January this year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published the first ever guidance in the UK on children’s screen time which concluded that while there is still not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age (making it impossible to recommend age appropriate time limits), instead parents should approach screen time based on the child’s developmental age and the individual need and value the family place on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep. When screen time displaces these activities, the evidence suggests then there is a risk to child wellbeing.

In February, a report by the charity Children in Northern Ireland, Virtual Lives, revealed that 82 per cent of parents here said they would like more guidance to be issued to help them make better informed decisions regarding their child’s use of screens and 63 per cent had a concern regarding their child’s screen use.

Dr Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner are the authors of OFFLINE (out now on Amazon and in bookstores RRP £12.99) that has sparked an international debate by revealing the “mind hacks”Facebook, Apple, Google, and Instagram use to get you and your children hooked on their products. An eye-opening research-based journey into the world of tech giants, smartphones, social engineering, and subconscious manipulation. This provocative work shows you how digital devices change individuals and communities for better and worse.

Heather Black

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