| Education

Online and happy. What is digital hygiene?

| 07 Sep 2023

Digital technology can enable children to be creative, build their own identity and stay in touch with loved ones. In order to be a positive aspect of children’s lives, however, they need to learn to use it correctly. How can you build a sustainable and healthy digital hygiene routine for your children? Child psychologist Jarmila Tomkova offers some useful tips.

1. When it comes to setting up boundaries, start early.

When should children start using smart technologies on their own? While they are likely to have limited experience with smart devices from a young age – such as watching fairy tales on YouTube, their parents usually oversee these early activities quite closely. It is only when children get older that they should become more independent (but still supervised) users. As Jarmila Tomkova explains, “around the age of 11, a child’s thinking changes from concrete to more abstract. Before this time, children are very susceptible to being influenced by the people and things around them, which can represent a real danger in the world of technology: a young child may be easily manipulated by advertisements and inappropriate content. But once they become capable of discerning the boundary between the concrete and the abstract, they can better understand the online world and work with it in a more rational, beneficial way.” 

However, parents should discuss smart technology with children years before letting them use their own devices. “Children should know what to expect before they enter the online world. They should know how to be safe online and how to avoid unpleasant situations. Above all, they ought to know that if they come across anything that makes them feel bad, they can always approach their parents and ask for advice.”

The psychologist also suggests that even if a child is old enough to use smart technologies on their own, they still need guidance: “I often use the analogy of driving. Though a child may be mentally prepared to drive, this does not mean that they should immediately sit behind the wheel. They first need to learn how to drive, and experience different scenarios under guidance so as to know how to react in the future. The same also goes for technology.” Likewise, we can think of parental control apps as helpful “autopilots” that help parents navigate and protect their children in the online sphere.

2. Be an example.

Parents should set an example for their children by having a healthy relationship with social media technology. “Parents basically act as trendsetters for their young children – and they should be aware of that. They influence their kids by the way they use technology, and they also have the power to set healthy habits. Precisely how they set them and where they draw the lines remains up to them. But they need to be aware of their own role and create a reasonable system that their family can follow,” Jarmila Tomkova suggests. 

3. Teach children that there is freedom in not being addicted to technology.

When setting up a regime of healthy digital hygiene, children will ideally not feel as if they are being highly restricted without reason. “A reasonable use of digital media can be likened to a healthy diet. We need food to survive and we eat all kinds of things, including both candy as well as nutritious foods. But we cannot keep eating without pause, we cannot eat only candy all day long and we cannot eat just before sleep. At the same time, when we teach kids how to eat healthily, we explain everything to them and we don’t put them on a harsh diet that only makes them feel unhappy. This only leads to secret snacking or binge-eating, among other things,” Jarmila Tomkova explains. 

Children should understand that boundaries are essential, that maintaining digital hygiene helps them enjoy their life both offline and on, and keeps them psychologically healthy. They should also know that there is freedom in not being dependent on technology. “When we are constantly online, our brains become addicted to the content we consume. We should teach children that they lose nothing when they are not always on their phones; rather, they are gaining freedom. Teens may appreciate the duel position of a digital expert and emancipated being, rather than feeling enslaved by technology” Tomkova adds. 

4. Think about time. 

The age at which your children start using technology is critical. When it comes to how much time should they spend on their phones or laptops, the psychologist says there is not one hard rule. Instead, each family should set a schedule of digital usage reasonably and clearly. For kids under 3 years, we limit the screen time more strictly. It may not be more than 30-50 minutes a day, and always in short time slots. We also recommend making use of natural digital opportunities such as short video-calls with family, or choosing slow, nonaggressive games or tales. As the kids grow older, the rules may be adjusted to their specific needs.

Parents should also help their kids explore their motivations and be aware of when and why they reach for their devices. “According to the statistics, people tend to look at their phone every 6 minutes – which is a very high number,” Tomkova claims. An average person then spends about 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phone each day. Using a phone or a laptop should not become a thoughtless activity that children do automatically, or just because they are bored. Parents should talk about media technology with their children and use dialogue to create a trusting relationship. Through such dialogue, we help kids become more self-aware and thus more self-regulated in their own usage.

“Even though people sometimes tend to overlook this, when children use their devices is also important,” the psychologist adds. For instance, using technology right before bedtime can make it difficult for children to fall asleep. Comparably, looking at the phone first thing in the morning is not the healthiest habit, as the brain needs some time to wake up and get ready to face the day. So, don’t forget to think about frequency and motivation, but also time schedule.  

5. Balance on and offline activities.

The more we are on our devices, the less we move. In addition, online content is full of stimuli – this is especially true for action games or TikTok. When faced with such content, our brains tend to go into a trance-like, hyper-excited state. “We cannot expect that kids will play an online game for an hour and then immediately go and do their homework. After such a digital trip,they need some time to recover neurologically, for example by walking, running or playing in the garden. After that, they will be more prepared to sit still and concentrate again,” Tomkova comments. Because all this excitement happens only in the brain while the body remains still, children need to balance their time online with offline activities, including different kinds of movements and sports. 

By moving the body, the cumulated excitement can be naturally released, which allows the child to concentrate on other tasks and activities. Apart from physical activities, we should also encourage kids to find other offline hobbies, and make sure they have contact with their friends and family in real life, not only on the internet. 

6. If you want to try digital detox, do it right. 

Digital detox is becoming increasingly popular among adults. Intentionally refraining from using smart technologies and devices for a limited period of time, some people opt for a break from the online sphere so as to focus on the world offline. Is such a radical approach suitable for children? “Digital detox should only be an option when the child already has a balanced digital hygiene. Otherwise, it could do more harm than good,” Tomkova replies. If we decide to try digital detox, we need to do it right. How? “First off, there needs to be a reason – for instance, we can make a bet with our kids on who will be able to stay without technology the longest. Or, we can create a challenge and say we want to observe our ‘digital cravings’ together to see when we reach for our phones the most. Unless the detox has a clear purpose, children will perceive it to be a senseless restriction,” the psychologist advises. If we decide to try digital detox, we should work with this experience effectively by discussing the different emotions and realizations we gained from it. 

Parents should also think about when it is best to do the detox. “We may decide to set aside technology during a trip, for instance, to focus on our experiences more. But if we plan the detox on a rainy day when no other activity is planned, it may not be a pleasant experience,” psychologist Jarmila Tomkova concludes. Overall, a digital detox may be an interesting experience – but it is always better to follow a sustainable and healthy digital hygiene first. 

When it comes to creating rules for digital hygiene, be transparent. It may help to have a Digital Family Agreement and display it in a place where all family members can see it. Download a free template.

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