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Screen-Time and SEND Children – How to get the balance right

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In the very early 1900’s, a library opened on the road my Grandmother walked along to get to school. She and her sisters were over the moon, for the first time ever ordinary children had access to an unlimited supply of books. However, my Great-Grandmother was horrified, and I remember my Grandmother and her sisters laughing as they recounted the trouble they would be in if they were caught reading at home. Their mum was convinced that reading would destroy their eyesight, and she couldn’t afford glasses for them if that happened.

Years later, the same Grandmother would get really cross with my mum for being too close to the wireless. This was now the early 1930’s, radio was new. My Grandmother was worried that too much listening would impair her hearing, and sitting too close to all that electricity would fry her brain. Back then, even electricity was relatively new-fangled, and not something my grandmother would have had at home in her own childhood. Thirty five years later, in the 1960’s, nothing would make my mum more cross than if she found me right up next to our black and white TV – TVs were the new thing then and she was concerned about potential eyesight damage.

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Fast forward to now, and parents are sharing exactly the same sorts of fears, but now it focuses on video games, smartphones, social media and the internet. Just like books, radio and TV, they are here to stay, and they will continue to be a major factor in our children’s lives right through adulthood.

However, digital technology is far more complex that any previous generation of parents had to worry about, and getting the balance right between allowing our children access to these technologies whilst keeping them safe has never been harder.

The issues are both nuanced and complex. It’s not helped by the fact that often our children are much more digitally savvy than we are, and we’re playing catch-up or we’re completely out of the loop in how gaming culture operates.

When we have a child who is perhaps less socially aware that their peer group, who is also perhaps using their iPad or laptop or x-box or whatever as a comfort blanket to cope better with life, and when that means that behaviours can escalate if a child is told to turn it off, things are even more complex.

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I don’t have all the answers, I don’t think anyone does, and this is something that we’re all learning as we go along in the same way that previous generations of parents have had to come to terms with their children’s leisure time being spent differently to how they were brought up.

There aren’t going to be any one-size-fits-all single solution or answer to these concerns either. You know your child better than anyone else in terms of age, ability, attitude, perspective and personality. What will work with one child and their family might be entirely the wrong approach for another family.

However, here are some thoughts that might just help you work out what’s right for your children. 

  • We all fear what we don’t know well, so if our child plays a particular game, ie Minecraft or Fortnite, and their behaviour then deteriorates or their language becomes abusive, it’s very easy for us to blame the game for these issues. We may try to address the issue by reducing our child’s access to it by imposing strict limits, conditions or boundaries, but it may not be the gaming itself that is causing our child’s behaviour to deteriorate, or it may only be a part of the picture. What we may be seeing is our child’s passion, something they really care about and can identify with. Maybe they love it so much that when things go wrong their frustration is intense and therefore they manage their emotions less successfully in those moments. If this is the case, to limit or to ban it altogether would be very sad if instead we can find a way to make it more manageable for them and for us

  • Maybe we should sit down and learn how to play the game so that we can get a good insight into what the appeal is for our children.

  • Perhaps playing it with them, or asking them to show you how they play it, would be a great way of bonding and showing your child that you want to be involved and interested in the things that are important to them

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  • A lot of our children struggle socially, and often these games are played with other children. Gaming can be a very successful way of engaging with their peer group and gaining acceptance, in a way that our children may find much harder when there are face-to-face social interactions. However, sometimes conflicts and misunderstandings can still happen for our children, and this is something to watch out for because it can cause a lot of distress. However, if we can try and understand how the friendship dynamic and culture revolving around a game functions, we’ll be able to see if our child is struggling socially with his fellow players, and if so, our child is safe and at home and with us on hand to help explain and sort things out.

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  • Think about it, 15 or 20 years ago our kids would have been off and hanging about MacDonald’s or a street and we wouldn’t have had a clue what they were talking about, whether they were being kind to each other, or if their language was shocking! At least a lot of this stuff now happens at home where we can keep an eye on things and step in if needs be.

  • If your child is playing with others, encourage them to not wear earphones. That way you can hear the other kids talking to each other and you’ll be able to gauge whether or not your child is responding in an appropriate way. For instance, a lot of parents are very concerned to hear their child swearing at their friends, but it’s useful to know if that’s your child being aggressive, or if that’s the way they all talk to each other in this particular dynamic. I’m not saying that’s right or acceptable, but it is very useful to know the difference because it may influence how you handle it with your child.

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  • When kids are playing a video game together, it’s very intense and takes huge concentration. If one parent insists that one of the children stop without prior warning and come and eat their lunch instead, it can ruin it for all the others. Do you remember being 8, 10, 12 or 14? Not upsetting your friends was often huge, and loyalties are often with a friendship group and not with a parent. It’s just useful to remember this when asking a child to stop playing, because a little bit of negotiation may mean that they can take a break at a much more convenient time regarding the gaming aspect of things.

  • Always let a child have plenty of notice that they must finish playing and do something else. Transitions are a huge trigger for many of our children, and the more time they get to process endings the easier it is for them.

  • Likewise, whenever they stop playing a video game or come off YouTube, let them know when they will be able to go back on it. Don’t leave it open-ended – a lot of our children really do need to know time scales and what is likely to happen and when. Asking a child to finish playing without giving them an idea when they can resume can be very unsettling and may cause things to escalate

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  • Be aware of how important this is to your child. This is their equivalent to a glass of wine, posh cheese and a box of chocolates whilst having a nice deep soak in a bubble bath – only even more so. When it’s time to move away from the screen, try to factor in moving onto another relatively enjoyable activity or task. For example, if your child has sensory issues and teeth-cleaning is a very difficult time of the day, don’t transition straight from screen-time to teeth-cleaning. Instead put something else in between that your child will find enjoyable.

  • A lot of our children’s devices have in-built timers or you may be able to download a timer app. A child often copes much better if the device has closed them out of something rather than the parent being the “baddy” and making them come off it. They are likely to be more accepting if it’s technology driven rather than parent-driven, although even with timers, our children do need lots of warning about when their time will be up.

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  • Help your child become more aware of when things make them cross on line, and then help them develop their own coping strategies if you can. One day, your child will be in their thirties, and if they have by then developed the ability to self-manage their own emotions and to self-regulate, they will be a much happier and more rounded person.

As parents, we are learning all the time too, and with screen-time everyone seems to have their own opinion and it can be a very divisive issue among parents. This technology is so recent that nobody really knows what the right approach to take is, or even if there is a right approach. In reality, we’re all making it up as we go along and hoping for the best, in exactly the same way that my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother once upon a time had to make the same leap of faith and just hope against hope that they were doing the right thing. In exactly the same way that those new-fangled inventions such as easily-accessible books, radios and TVs were always going to be a part of their children’s’ lives, gaming technology is here to stay too. It’s our job to navigate a way through that works for us and for our children, and nobody ever said that was going to be easy! Good luck.