A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: How to deal with young children using smart devices

At what age should children be introduced to technology? Photo / iStock
At what age should children be introduced to technology? Photo / iStock

Problems in life are relative, as we all know, and worries about how well a child has done in recent exams would be a comparative luxury for some of the parents who come to talk to me about their children.

For Susanna getting her teenage son out of his bedroom, let alone to school, last term would have been a victory. Josh, 15, had developed a passion - or an obsession - for talking to online friends. He increasingly withdrew from his mother and sister, emerging briefly to raid the fridge and became aggressive and distraught at threats that the internet might have been disconnected.

Or there's the father of 14-year-old Shoshanna, who became worried sick after intercepting "dark and dangerous" messages on her Facebook and began to notice the anxiety and depression his previously sunny child had developed.

It is hardly news that the "found everywhere" smartphone is a major contemporary conundrum.

A "can't live with and can't live without" dilemma that one can safely assume the 70 per cent of adult New Zealanders who own a smartphone will be familiar with. According to Research NZ, only two years ago this figure was at 48 per cent.

Today's digital natives though are our children who are growing up online with their iPads and smartphones. We have a new and complex contemporary problem.

Guidelines abound regarding a child's exposure to technology. According to the American Association for Paediatrics, infants should have no contact, three to five year olds only one hour per day, and six to 18 year olds, two hours per day. Warnings proliferate about the impact on brain development when these limits are not observed.

Multiple research studies have unsurprisingly identified a link between internet addiction and poor psychological wellbeing for young people. Dr Richard Graham, a British based consultant adolescent psychiatrist, has put together therapeutic programmes for technology addictions. In them the focus is on the struggle with regulating technology use, the physical impact of lack of sleep and poor nutrition and the compromise of confidence in interpersonal situations.

Before we start to assume that it is only adolescents who have the problem, the issue of technology overuse also impacts infants and young children. These age groups learn by observing and reading parental facial expressions - a vital aspect for the consolidation of developmental milestones. Young children, observed by a research team from Boston University, were noted as trying to pull a parent's face towards them and away from the screen their parent was immersed in. And many mums and dads can attest that their toddlers will react with tantrums and uncontrollable behaviour when their devices are taken away - which surely resonates with the way many of us might feel when we can't get to our own device.

A report on adolescent wellbeing by the NZ chief science advisors office in 2011, stresses the critical period of early childhood during which the fundamentals of self-control are established. It is sobering to realise that technology addiction may need to feature in early childhood education if children are to be equipped for the turmoil of adolescence. Our country's outcomes at adolescence are particularly poor relative to other developed countries. Research into cyber bullying, risk reduction and increasing benefits of digital media use is ongoing.

If you are struggling to get your child off the tablet, phone or computer, you are not imagining it and nor is your child unusual - your observations of real withdrawal symptoms are verified by research - a "digital fog" creates the fatigue, irritability, distraction and protest.

No revolution will ever come with a guarantee of anything but the very best and the very worst of social impacts. Loneliness, lack of social skills and addiction - which compromises physical wellbeing - is one part of this current era. Yet, ask any family therapist if it matters whether children should have real time contact with a divorced parent, an out of town grandparent, or a friend who has emigrated. This time in history is not known as the knowledge revolution without reason. Never before has so much information and access to others been so readily and instantly available to the average person.

The revolution is here and we are all surfing its waves to our respective advantages and disadvantages.

As we try to sort out our own relationship with technology, possibly one of the most difficult parts of all of this is that our children do as we do. When they protest that they are "just" using their iPad for homework, it can sound familiar to when we pick up our devices and say we are "just checking work emails".

It's not easy to get it right and it's easy to get very worried or not worried enough.

All we can really do is our best for ourselves and our children and accept that we are learning as we go. The old maxim still applies and that is "everything in moderation". If it gets too hard and you feel you are not able to modify your child's cravings and mood, then you should reach out for help. Understanding and management of this phenomenon is available and developing all the time.

Jill Goldson's tips for children and technology

• Limit the time on the device. Try an alarm system to warn your child that they have a short period of time left on the device before they come off it.

• Try making meal times absolutely screen free. The need to eat elicits a competitively strong response.

• Look for projects that involve hand, brain and sense engaging activities. Our summer offers the perfect environment.

• Involve yourself with your children in some screen free time and activities. This will be both to your advantage and theirs.

• Discuss in advance. Factor in social media time and homework.


• Feel guilty about the battles.

• Give in or backpeddle because the children say they are bored.

• Leave screens accessible on a screen free day or at mealtime.

For more information and help contact The Parenting Place or online at netsafe.org.nz.

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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