Blog - 07 February 2022
As we begin another school year, it is always a great time to reflect on the role that screens and the digital world play in our lives and in those of the young people in our care. We can use this time to look at screentime habits and behaviours that may need to be tweaked, any boundaries that may need to be assessed and engage in conversations that may need to take place. Coinciding with this, is Safer Internet Day, which is also a reminder of the importance of staying safe and looking after the health and wellbeing of everyone online, especially our young people.
The theme of this year's Safer Internet Day is to ‘play it fair online’. Whether we are playing games, commenting, connecting, searching, listening, watching, reading or sharing, everyone deserves to have a fair go online. Everyone deserves to participate in this very global, connected, public and permanent world, free from judgement, prejudice, inequality, harassment, bullying, stalking, abuse or fear. So it is absolutely true that we must continue to teach, to role model and to ensure that positive online behaviours and safety remain a focus.
It is also true that the last couple of years have seen a huge expansion in the role that screens and the digital world have played. The screens provided greater opportunities to learn, to work, to be informed, to connect, to socialise and to be entertained. When so many of the traditional ways of doing these things were taken away, the technology stepped in to fill many of the voids.
As we return to school, to work and to regular activities again, there is also apprehension from many on how they can ensure their young people are able to wean back some of that screentime and to ensure a sense of balance is restored or maintained.
So in order to play it fair online, to stay safe, to maintain mental health and wellbeing, and to return to some more positive and balanced digital habits, there are a few things we can continue to do, to kick start the year with positive online behaviours.
Just as we need to have regular time outs on the sporting field, to have half time breaks and time on the bench, we also need to ensure that we experience plenty of breaks from the screens. Both for our physical and mental wellbeing. We need to be injecting regular moments of physical activity and movement and regular times to be looking away from a screen. Our bodies, our brains and even our eyes were not made for the constant processing of information, the relentless pings and notifications, the sedentary lifestyle and the constant staring at a screen. But whilst screentime hours may have crept up significantly over the last couple of years, making some conscious efforts to slowly wean back that time and take regular breaks, is also going to be easier than asking a young person to drastically or suddenly reduce that time. So incorporate regular reminders to get up and go for a quick walk, stretch the body, shoot some hoops, look away, blink the eyes, close the eyes and immerse oneself in nature and fresh air. Sleep is also an integral part of young people's wellbeing and development, so be sure to remove those screens from the bedtime routine and put them away at least an hour before going to bed.
Whilst the focus often tends to weigh solely on the amount of time we are spending on a screen, it is even more important that we look at the nature of that screentime and what it is they are actually doing with that time online. Spending an hour on YouTube for example, can look very different and have very different impacts, depending on what it is that they are watching. Watching sporting replays, researching an historical event or watching a motivational Ted Talk, is vastly different to watching violence immersing oneself in fake news or misinformation. Similarly playing an online game may be more about a young person achieving something and feeling a sense of satisfaction and competency, or may be more about connecting with others than simply a way to fill their time. Of course, the type of game, the people they are connecting with on that game, and the impacts that playing has on them, are all far better ways to judge that online experience, than merely the amount of time.
Just as we need to look at the nature of what we are doing online, we also need to look at the impacts those activities are having on the individual. If they are enjoying positive connections online, feeling supported, motivated, challenged, uplifted and informed, then the time spent online is likely to be a positive addition to their day. Of course if that time online means they are being bullied, being abused, feeling afraid, getting scammed, groomed or engaging in unsafe or risky practises, then no amount of time on the screens is going to be good for them. We must continue to discuss with young people the importance of critically evaluating their online experiences. To think mindfully about how, where and with whom they are hanging out online. In doing so, we are reminding them of all the things they do have control over when it comes to hanging out online. Ultimately they get to decide who they connect with, how they engage, whether they respond, what they view, what they share, what they play and with whom they play with. Every time they get online they are making choices that go a long way to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their experiences. We need to empower them with the knowledge to recognise the impacts and effects of their time online in order to make the very best choices for them.
Whilst we know that the technology absolutely filled many of the voids of activity, learning and connection that were taken away, we also know that the technology cannot give us all that we need. We need to ensure we are making time for all of those things that allow young people to function at their best. They need time connecting with others in real life, they need physical activity, they need fresh air and nature, they need downtime to reflect and encourage a curious mind and of course they need plenty of sleep. Being mindful of how they are spending their days, what they are fitting in, and looking at the trade off for all that time on a screen, can be a helpful reminder of the need to remain mindful of the way one spends their very precious time and emotional energy.
Being safe online, playing it fair and maintaining a healthy relationship with our screens is a constant and evolving conversation that must continue with young people from the moment they first swipe a screen or press play on a video. These screens are not going anywhere fast, so this Safer Internet Day and every day thereafter, we must ensure the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of young people continues to remain a priority, in order to ensure all of the many benefits the digital world has to offer.
Martine Oglethorpe is a Digital Wellbeing and Online Safety Educator, Speaker and Author. She has a background in teaching and a Master of Counselling and is a mother to 5 boys. She presents regularly to schools, parents, students and workplaces on healthy ways to navigate the digital world. She has recently released her new book The Modern Parent: Raising a Great Kid in the Digital World, available from Amazon and on her website http://www.themodernparent.net.