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

Jill Goldson: How to navigate new tech with kids

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As time goes by, we will find a better, calmer perspective on the topic of children and technologies. Photo / iStock
As time goes by, we will find a better, calmer perspective on the topic of children and technologies. Photo / iStock

A client in the science world once gave me the statistic that our brain has 100 billion neurons with a quadrillion connections to it. What's even more amazing, they said, is that the human race struggles to fully understand even a single cell.

All very mind-boggling, and yet it is also the backdrop against which we must continue to manage the ordinary. And how very ordinary it is, now, for me to see clients who are in despair over their children and teenagers' addiction to tiny screens.

You will have seen this topic covered before. Sometimes the discussion goes around in circles: What effect will it have on their brains? Are they in danger? Could it be a positive? But as time goes by, we will find a better, calmer perspective. After all, the technological revolution is fully here - and just as with other transformative revolutions in history, we will have to learn to manage the less desirable aspects of the huge social change it brings.

This much is clear: change always delivers in a moment - or many moments - of mismatch. The experience of modern technology outstrips our preparedness to deal with it. This is the case whether it's a newborn in the house, the death of a loved one, or falling in, or out, of love. And that is where the issues lie: We are forever engaged in adaptation - because either we change or perish.

The complexity of family life

The tasks of family life are already complex, but now there are new complexities. As a result of healthy environments and nutrition, for example, girls are reaching puberty much faster than they once did. That now feeds into concern around selfie culture, which worries parents because (regardless of whether selfies empower female sexuality or not) 11-year-old girls are not quite sexual beings yet.

Then of course we come across familiar but no-less affecting tales of cyber bullying, and the horrific outcomes it can have. Such as the death of Kyana Vergara, a 12-year-old girl from Palmerston North.

I have clients as young as 13 bullied on Instagram by adults, who fling vicious and racist slurs. Others, bereaved and angry from life's ups and downs, fixate on their online lives and platforms. Some have special needs and sneak out at night to meet "friends" found on Tinder.

But there is good, too. As demonstrated in this piece by writer Rebecca Kamm, which looks at young adults with a little-known psychological disorder called selective mutism. The internet offers refuge to communities that cannot form real life connections so easily. "At SM Space Cafe, a closed Facebook support group, 553 people from around the world log-on to compare notes, offer and receive encouragement, and post motivational quotes," she writes.

"Most have never seen a doctor about their SM, let alone one who actually knows about it, and has experience treating it. So they've never had anyone tell them yes, that's part of your condition, and no, you're not alone."

A different approach

So yes, bullying, sexual grooming, internet addiction and depression are all associated with this technology. But so are greater social connectedness, linguistic and cognitive development, increased cultural awareness and social support for marginalised youth.

As adults, we need to look beyond time rationing and outdoor pursuits. We need to encourage the young in our society to take responsibility for themselves and their friends. We also need to educate ourselves, and to maintain an open dialogue with children and young people. We need to teach them about red flags and safety and exit strategies in case of the unthinkable.

Interestingly, most researchers do not advocate restricting access as a means to monitoring use. Children do best, just as they always have, when parents empower them.

Our young are travelling to new worlds: Minecraft, Moviestar Planet, Facebook, and Instagram. That can be terrifying for parents, but that terror can be mitigated by taking measures around things like technology use in family spaces, such as the living room.

It pays to keep in mind that despite the bad news and the inherent danger, which must also be addressed, we also have the most enormous potential we have ever had for creativity, knowledge attainment, and connectivity. Cyber safety and this whole new world of options are not mutually exclusive.

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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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