THE Covid-19 pandemic has forced most of us to ditch face-to-face contact and opt for virtual connection instead.
And with our lives being streamed through Zoom meetings, virtual classrooms and Netflix, it can have a severe impact on our children’s emotional wellbeing and safety.
Not only does the lack of interpersonal connection affect children’s development but the over-reliance on gaming, social media or TV can negatively impact their day-to-day behaviour – but that doesn’t mean you should simply take it away from them.
Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series, tells us why you shouldn’t be saying no to devices but engaging in gaming or TV time with your kids, as part of Barnardos’ Plugging in, Switching Off campaign.
Here are some of her top tips on how to help both you and your child navigate the relationship between mental health, connectivity and virtual life.
GO OUTDOORS AND MOVE
ONE of the best things to help an over-active mind is to go outside and get moving, according to Joanna.
The expert told how being outside has a neurological impact because you’re changing your field of vision, you’re changing what you’re looking at, what you’re smelling and what you’re hearing.
She told the Irish Sun: “It’s a different sensory engagement and that’s very effective for resetting an agitated brain.
“Also you’re moving and that physical movement is very good for you rather than staying in a sedentary – we’re all spending a lot of time indoors sitting in front of computers or TVs because that’s part of our lives now.
“I’m certainly not saying no to computers and no to online, I’m just saying not only, make sure you have a degree of balance.”
PLAY WITH YOUR KIDS
Play is an extremely important thing, not just for children but adults too.
Joanna is urging parents to play with their kids as it’s a great way to encourage flexibility and adaptability in our thinking.
She said: “[Playing is] not just for their benefit, that’s absolutely for us adults as well. I don’t think us adults have nearly enough playfulness in our lives.
“I really mean not a box of toys in the corner, I mean play as a state of mind, a way of being, it’s a great way to re-examine rules and systems and establish new ways of working, and don’t we all need tons of that at the moment?
“I think as parents we tend to stop playing with our teenagers because we think they’ve outgrown it.
“I’d be slow to tell teenagers to come off their devices at the moment because their important hub of social development is their peer group, not their parents.
“And they have been denied access to their peer group at a peak brain development time and that has been extremely challenging, so in terms of limiting screen time, at this age they must have this time.”
BE INTERESTED IN YOUR KIDS’ HOBBIES
Take an interest in what your child is interested in to monitor how they behave and connect at the same time.
Joanna said: “For example, instead of saying, ‘Come off Minecraft it’s rubbish’ sit with them and say, ‘You really love Minecraft, can you show me how it works? Can I sit in and watch? I promise I won’t talk I’ll just sit her and listen.’
“And that’s really good because it tells us how the game works but also it allows us to hear the impact of the game on our child while they’re playing it – What does this bring up in them when they’re playing it? How do they interact with other kids online? What language are they using and how are they afterwards?
Input creative, playful systems to offset impact of too much time spent online by children.
Giving. an example, Joanna said: “When you know you need an hour on a Zoom call and you’d like that to be largely uninterrupted with 20 requests for biscuits or help with the toilet, whatever it might be, when your hour becomes 90 minutes, don’t run in and say, ‘Turn [the TV] off! Turn that off!’
“Because then we’re pulling our children from that virtual immersion and then you can get those behavioural meltdowns.
“Instead as a parent I would go in and say, ‘If you were a director [of this movie] what scene would you cut out? And what new scene would you put in and how would that change the ending? Let’s draw the new scene. If you were creating a new character what would their name be? What would they look like?’
“Then you can bring in a high level of imagination, creativity and engagement.
“Equally, having a couple of lists drawn up, movie scavenger hunts I call them, is just a pre-made list (if your children are quite young use pictures, if they’re old enough to read use words) and write down household things and give them a pencil and as they watch their show while you’re doing your work they have to tick off on their list the items that they see.”
Children under two years of age should be subject to little or no screen time – ideally none, as their developing brains can’t process that level of stimulant.
Joanna told us: “They do much better with personal play and at that age the best toy for your child is you.
“At that age, they need very tactile, experiential, in-the-now moment play and you cannot do that through a screen.
“No matter how old your child is, make sure that screen play or gaming can be a part of their lives but it’s not all of their play and it’s not the only thing they’re interested in.”
The key to online safety is teaching your child how to make good choices.
The psychotherapist said: “I would echo Barnardos’ own policy which is a positive approach to online safety.
“I would be saying to parents be slow to ban the internet and block the device, sweeping statements like this and rather empower your children to learn about making good choices online.
“Make sure that before you put the device in your child’s hands that you know its full capacity. Get informed.
“I think it’s about as a family, adopting a positive approach to safety online.”
Joanna stressed the importance of emotional wellbeing for children and advised teachers and parents to allow them to play as much as possible
Parents and teachers may see a surge in recovery from the pandemic from children, who may act as though everything is suddenly great because they’ve reconnected.
But Joanna would dissuade parents and teachers from a rapid return to academic focus.
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She said: “I think that’s going to bring a second surge of anxiety for children, it’s far more important to prioritise mental and emotional wellbeing for the rest of the school term – lots of time outside, lots of time playing, no matter how old they are.
“Have them working on small projects in groups and programmes and working things out in a collaborative way to reconnect and build group cohesion because that is going to co-regulate that emotional arousal.
“That’s what going to enable them to learn come September. Because play is the language of children, that is how they learn and make sense of things.”