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Nurturing Healthy Digital Behaviours

A guide for parents and caregivers

25 January 2024

In today's fast-paced digital age, technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. From smartphones and tablets to laptops and gaming consoles, screens are everywhere, presenting both opportunities and challenges, especially for children. Dr Kristy Goodwin, a renowned expert in the field of digital wellbeing, is on a mission to help parents and caregivers foster productive and healthy digital behaviours that support, rather than stifle, healthy childhood development.

Before becoming Australia's leading digital wellbeing and productivity expert, Kristy Goodwin was a teacher. Her interest in the development of children's brains began in the classroom but it was the birth of her first child that led her to closely study the science of digital exposure on young people's brains.

With a knack for synthesising complex research findings into everyday language and practical recommendations, she wrote her first book Raising Your Child in a Digital World, setting her on the path to becoming a sought after thought leader on the subject.

Dr Kristy's work is grounded in rigorous research, but it's her practical experience that helps her connect with anxious parents. She understands the daily struggles and concerns of modern caregivers, having navigated the challenges of raising her own children in a digital world.

"As a parent, I've been through the same dilemmas and faced the same uncertainties," says Dr Kristy. "It's not about demonising screens but understanding how to make them work for us, not against us."

Her commitment to clearly communicating the science as well as practical insights makes her a trusted voice for those seeking guidance in an increasingly complicated digital world. She offers workshops, resources, and expert advice to help families strike a balance between technology and wellbeing. Her latest book, Dear Digital, We Need to Talk is billed as the "guilt-free guide to taming your tech habits and thriving in a digital world."

How much screen time is too much?

The number one question Dr Kristy is asked is "How much screen time is healthy?" Her answer isn't a hard- and-fast number, rather a call to analyse the purpose and quality of that screen time, as well as understanding what important activity it might be displacing.

"There are three really significant displacement effects we need to watch out for," explains Dr Kristy. "Not just in our kids' lives, but in our own too. The first is sleep. Kids and teens need both good quality sleep and an adequate amount to grow and develop. But the research tells us that many kids and teens aren't getting enough of either. One of the chief reasons, but certainly not the only reason, is because of their technology habits."

The second is the displacement of physical activity. Too much time spent in front of screens keeps us still and sedentary, which over long periods can cause an array of health effects ranging from aches and pain and fatigue to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. We physically need to move if we want to live a long and healthy life. And it's not just physical health that matters. Movement and activity produce happy chemicals in our brains called endorphins which reduce stress and make us feel good.

The third is that screens displace our sense of connection with one another. As anyone whose been trying to have a conversation with someone looking at their phone or computer or even the TV knows, screens make us distracted and disconnected from one another. We may feel like we're connected to what's happening online, but we're not connected to our friends, families, and coworkers where it matters.

"This can have really profound consequences for the health of our relationships, obviously, but it also can have devastating consequences for our health and wellbeing too," says Dr Kristy. "Humans are social creatures, and if we don't get a good dose of in- person social connection regularly, we can become withdrawn, lonely, and depressed."

Taming digital distractions

While the dangers of excessive screen time are real, Dr Goodwin says that technology is here to stay. The goal for parents and caregivers isn't to eliminate screens entirely—that would be unrealistic and unproductive, says Dr Kristy—but to teach children how to use technology in a way that enhances their lives rather than harms them.

She sets out the following strategies to help parents tame digital distractions and create healthy technology habits and behaviours:

Be a good digital role model

One of the most critical aspects of fostering healthy digital behaviours in children is modelling the right behaviours as parents and caregivers. Dr Kristy says, "Children learn by example, so it's essential to be a good digital role model. If you're spending hours each night answering emails or scrolling Instagram, it sends a message that this is ok for them to do too."

Portion control

Dr Kristy says that when it comes to managing screen time, we need give kids clear guardrails to operate within and enough warning when their time online needs to come to an end. "Meltdowns and tantrums can be minimised by saying, for example: 'When this episode ends, I'd like you to turn off the TV,' or 'When you've finished this battle, I'd like you to put the console away.' This gives our kids a sense of control in their life."

Prioritise 'green time'

Balancing screen time with 'green time' is an essential strategy and a great way to connect with kids. Head to the park together, learn a new sport or skill, or simply burn off energy at the playground. "Getting your child outside after they've been on a device can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol," says Dr Kristy. "Movement helps to regulate the nervous system too and helps their brains produce feel-good chemicals."

Create screen-free zones

Help kids get a good night sleep by designating their bedroom as a screen-free zone. You might choose to do the same for the dining room or wherever family meals are eaten together, to encourage family conversation and bonding. Dr Kristy advises, "Have a designated 'landing zone' where all digital devices are stored each night so you can do a quick tech headcount before bed."

Promote digital literacy and cyber safety

Teaching kids about digital literacy is a critical skill, says Dr Kristy. It's important for parents to engage in discussions about online safety and the appropriateness (or otherwise) of certain content. "Children and teens don't have fully developed prefrontal cortexes (the part of the brain that manages their impulses)," says Dr Kristy. "So, they're prone to posting things they could later regret. Encourage them to pause-before-you-post and keep technology in publicly accessible parts of the house."

Embrace boredom

Boredom is beneficial. "The human brain was not designed for constant information processing around the clock," says Dr Kristy. "It craves moments of downtime and daydreaming. When we allocate time for daydreaming and mental wandering, we provide room for creative thinking and problem-solving." It's during these moments that children begin to develop a deeper understanding of themselves.

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