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Digital Wellbeing and Children – Everything You Need to Know

Simon Coulthard June 14, 2022

4 Minute Read

The internet - and the advanced technologies that drive it - is an ever-present part of life, making it crucial that parents know everything they can about digital wellbeing and children.

Ultimately, we want the best for our kids and the online world should be there to enhance their lives - instead of causing distractions or concerns.

But, unfortunately, not all online experiences are good for children and this can have a real impact on how they feel about themselves, their relationships with friends and family, and the world around them - not to mention their wider development.

Given that 95% of teens have a smartphone, with 45% of them saying that they are online on a near-permanent basis (PEW Research Center), digital wellbeing is today recognized as a key parenting responsibility.

The parents of younger kids cannot escape this reality either - the average child has their first smartphone at 10 and half of them are using social media by the time they’re 12 (Influence Central).

Unfortunately, mental health issues among children have skyrocketed in parallel to their growing reliance on digital devices.

This is an area that needs to be addressed, and this article provides you with all the information you need to support your child’s digital wellness.

Research has found that children do have better digital wellbeing when parents pay attention to their online habits and experiences (Internet Matters) - giving you all the motivation you need to read on!

What is Digital Wellbeing?

Put in simple terms, digital wellbeing - otherwise known as digital wellness or digital health - is all about how the online world makes us feel. 

In the modern world, our digital and real lives can be so tightly entwined that it is difficult to separate the digital from overall child wellbeing - particularly as they get older and have more online independence.

But the impact of the internet on a child’s digital wellbeing can be broadly categorized into the following four areas:

  1. Amount of screentime
  2. Impact of distressing content
  3. Issues around their desire to fit in
  4. Effects of digital drama

Amount of Screen Time

Whether we like it or not, phones, tablets, and TVs are a central feature of young life - children like them and busy parents appreciate the peace that these “digital pacifiers” allow them.

Estimates are that children under the age of two are staring at a screen for over three hours per day (JAMA). We know that our digital devices are highly addictive, but this activity also has a real impact on their brain’s wider development.

And while research on this subject remains underdeveloped, the information available suggests that children who spend more than two hours per day glued to a smartphone or tablet do worse on language and thinking tests.

This makes sense, given that screen time encourages sedentary and passive behavior, without the human interaction needed to develop healthy language and social skills.

And for children plugged in for more than seven hours a day, researchers have noted a deterioration of the brain’s cortex - with repercussions for their level of critical thinking and reasoning (NIH).

Ultimately, excessive screen time affects a child’s mood, self-esteem, and body image. It also means that children are sacrificing their health in other areas - they’re not moving around as much, enjoy fewer family meals, have weight issues, and have a poorer quality of sleep.

Impact of Distressing Content

Screen time remains a key measurement for digital wellbeing, but what your child is actually doing online is also important for their mental health.

Unfortunately, the internet is an adult world and their digital devices open children up to a world of cyberbullies, sexual predators, and data thieves, as well as pornography and other distressing content.

It’s all but impossible to shield younger people from these things - children normally have access to other people’s devices and they’re very capable of getting around parental controls on their own.

In the UK, more than half of children 11-16 have watched explicit content online. One third of them claim that they’ve experienced sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination (Internet Matters).

These bad experiences can have a real bearing on their mental health, self worth, and body image, and the consequence of this is soaring rates of suicide, self harm, and depression - especially among teenage girls - over the last ten years.

Issues Around Their Desire to Fit In

The internet - and particularly social media - plays on the impressionable minds of children and young adults, jabbing at their insecurities and desire to fit in.

From the age of ten onwards, children are attuned to search for social rewards, like attention and approval from friends and peers, and social media turns the number of likes and followers they receive into just that - a form of currency in their community.

Ultimately, they want social validation, but children are frankly never going to be able to match up to the beauty standards of peers and celebrities whose online selves bear little resemblance to their real selves.

The internet also makes children worry about FOMO - or fear of missing out. This means that they build a strong attachment to their phone to keep up with what’s happening online, but at the same time can easily develop anxiety from the realization that they were either left out or not invited to an event.

What’s more, the problems around their desire to fit in means that they can be easily persuaded to compete in viral online dares. Many of these are highly dangerous, and have resulted in tragedy and death.

Well known examples of this trend include the bird box challenge, which encouraged users to record themselves doing dangerous things blindfolded, and the tide pod challenge, which coaxed them into eating laundry detergent.

Effects of Digital Drama

The social world of children has always been intense, hierarchical, and pretty savage, but at least in the past they could go home and take a break from negative experiences.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t possible anymore.

Thanks to social media, fall outs or disagreements with friends or peers have become much more complicated. Fights are now public events and can have a real impact on a child’s social reputation - affecting their ability to navigate the real world.

It’s also a lot easier to fall out with people online, since it’s easier to misunderstand posts and messages when we can’t see someone’s facial expressions, body language, or hear their tone of voice.

Cyberbullying is another huge issue for children, with an estimated 36% of teenagers having experienced it (DoSomething.org). It can be harrowing, and often leads to lower self esteem, less interest in school, and low academic achievement.

And, while cyberbullying is usually associated with children, the increasing number of adults involved in online shaming makes the issue far more serious for those that experience it.

How to Improve Your Child’s Digital Wellbeing

So, how can we get children to control their impulse to use platforms that have been made to attract them like moths to a flame? 

How can they best protect themselves from what is a toxic online culture? 

How can you stop them from experiencing the digital overload that will affect their wider quality of life?

These are some of the questions that define a child’s digital wellbeing today and they can be complicated to answer.

Ultimately, your role as a parent is to help your children to develop the critical thinking, self control, and coping strategies that they will need to effectively deal with the online world and all the risks associated with it.

This starts by controlling screen time. Ultimately, some internet use has been found to be beneficial for children, as long as digital devices are integrated into a balanced lifestyle. But self control is a key development issue that has a real bearing on their capacities in life as they get older.

Unfortunately, the recommendations from the leading child wellbeing associations around the world disagree about what represents a healthy amount of screen time among children, and the limits you set will reflect your child’s age and “digital maturity”.

If you have a child under the age of two, they should avoid screens altogether.

After this age, it’s advisable for children to be outside for at least the same amount of time that they play with their devices. They also shouldn't be on their devices for extended periods, and need to be coaxed into taking regular breaks to protect their eyes.

It’s also important for families to agree on digital usage, and you could decide to ban devices from the dinner table, to establish no-phone-zones in the house, or to set periods of the day that are free from these digital distractions.

Children should also be banned from any screen time in the last hour before they go to bed, so that the blue light doesn’t affect their quality of sleep - encourage them to read or play quietly instead.

Ultimately, it’s useful to make digital wellbeing a key kitchen table conversation - speak to your children about the internet, find out what they’re doing and how they feel. Let them know that they can come and speak with you about any bad experience that they face.

Teach Digital Wellness by Example

Children learn from what we do as well as what we say, and it’s good to remember that parents who spend too much time glued to their own devices end up with children with far poorer digital wellbeing.

This makes it all the more important for parents to act as good digital role models, as well as to resist the urge to use devices as digital pacifiers.

You can find ways to improve your relationship with your devices in our Personal Digital Wellbeing Checklist, and we’ve also compiled a list of the best apps for improving digital wellbeing​​​​​​​ with your children.

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