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Don’t switch off your child’s life – help them use smartphones responsibly

Source: Sunday Times

A new breed of experts is trying to bridge the digital divide between parents and ‘screenagers’ on the positive and responsible use of smartphones.

When digital expert Dean McCoubrey starts talking to teens about social media, they try to work out whose side he’s on: that of anti-screen adults or theirs, as the first generation to grow up with smartphones.

But McCoubrey, who founded MySocialLife to promote digital wellbeing, understands both sides of the great divide and works with students, parents and schools to bridge it.

Digital intelligence, or wise use of devices, is becoming increasingly important as smartphones become indispensable.

Jess Oosthuizen, a PhD student on the University of Cape Town’s cyberpsychology team, says though it’s true that some smartphone users can be regarded as addicts, the term “is not helpful to describe an entire generation of young people who are heavy smartphone users. Rather, it’s about recognising that smartphone use is pervasive. It’s here to stay.”

Instead of vilifying devices, teach adolescents how to use them as empowering tools, she says.

This need — for kids and adults alike — has sparked a demand for digital or “screen” coaches along with mindfulness coaches. Preventing digital dementia, when the overloaded brain underperforms and people burn out, is one of their tasks.

Accept it, and move on. “Young people love their online connections,” says Wits University social worker Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini. “We need to move from always condemning online use to find ways to mitigate risks.”

When Oosthuizen did her master’s research on smartphones and adolescent usage, she expected her research subjects to do a month’s detox, but none did.

“The longest time a participant was willing to give up [their] phone was 10 days. One agreed to participate in the detox from breakfast until supper,” she says.

Being online is as vital to digital natives as eating and sleeping (too often trumping sleep) and they typically have a choice about how much and what to consume. Is it beneficial or is it junk?

“How screens are used is as important as how much they are used,” according to guidelines issued by the Canadian Paediatric Society in June for children and adolescents. These could equally apply to adults.

Moderate consumption of social media is better for the mental health of young people than no or heavy media usage, researchers reported recently in the American Medical Association journal.

Children who used social media for an hour a day had a 12% “reduced risk of depression” but those who used it for more than five hours pushed up their risk by 80%.

Clinical psychologist Hugo Theron found a similar pattern with research done among Free State teens from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Children with moderate social media use had higher scores in terms of self-esteem, emotional regulation and relationships, he says. “The trends we saw were related to the amount of use and there were no significant differences between urban and rural.”

Families wind up at Theron’s consulting room in Cape Town polarised over screen use. “This is the first generation whose developmental identity is entwined with the internet. This the first generation of parents that has to mentor something they did not grow up with. Parents are still catching up and often don’t have a clue.

“Phones and social media are an important part of children’s lives and we must not demean them or ignore problems with them until it is too late.”

Theron advocates a “third way” around smartphones — a balance between the needs of fear-driven parents and “screenagers”.

That’s where frontrunners like McCoubrey come in, teaching digital life skills, mostly at Cape schools.

Understanding that the online world is “pop-up theatre”, entertaining but often fake — the camera does lie on tech platforms — is one of the critical-thinking skills in his programme.

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