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How should we parent in the digital age?

January 16, 2019


A survey by Norton has revealed that children in the UAE are among the youngest in the world to receive their first mobile device, with age seven being the average. And 66% of parents have admitted that they worry about spending too much time on their own phones. I confess I’m one of them.


Folks, we’re in unchartered waters. We’re the first generation of parents who are raising children in a truly digital age. Granted, when I was a teenager the soundtrack to technology was the agonising noise of dial-up, only for my mum to yell up the stairs that she needed to use the phone before unceremoniously cutting me off from my instant chat. I think her main concern was that I wasn’t doing my homework, while today it’s all a bit more… complicated.


Remember we used to say ‘BRB’ online? We don’t do that anymore, because we’re online all the time. Emailing, chatting with family, paying bills, ordering food, studying, looking up recipes, watching TV, reading maps and so it goes on. We live in the internet more than ever before.


So where does that leave our kids? In some ways, they’re unbelievably lucky. Last week my four-year-old asked me about the sun, and after six seconds of me dispensing my knowledge we looked on YouTube and found an age-appropriate five-minute video that we could watch together, pausing while she asked questions. We both learnt something.


And when it comes to entertainment, frankly I don’t know where I’d be without cartoons at my fingertips to keep them occupied while I get ready in the morning, or we all need some sofa time at the weekend. Gone are the days of five television channels and three hours of child-friendly programming in the morning before the horseracing started. Now, there’s a seemingly endless list of characters, stories and fantastical places to capture the imagination.


So this isn’t about demonising the internet, especially when it comes to our kids. In fact, Norton’s survey also found that more than half of parents in the UAE believe mobile technology and mobile devices can help foster children’s problem solving and learning skills (62%), with almost three-quarters (72%) saying that children being in charge of their own devices teaches them responsibility. It’s not all bad news.


This is about starting a conversation – one that has probably been going on in your head for a while, with ideas and concerns niggling you. I’m not going to lay out rules, but let you know what’s (mostly) working for us. And I want to know what you’re doing too. So we can help each other figure it out.


Worryingly, Norton’s research also found that children in the UAE desire mobile screen time more than sweets, and that children in the UAE spend more time in front of a mobile screen than playing outdoors (although in the summer I can’t blame them). On average across the UAE, children spend close to two and half hours of their leisure time on mobile devices every day, close to an hour longer than the average amount of time spent playing outdoors.


Honestly, these numbers are just going to go up, as game and app developers learn more ways to hook us in, as choice of shows and channels continues to grow, and as more of daily life migrates online. So we’re at a critical stage.


My kids (age four and nearly two) aren’t at the age I dread – the teens – when online can take a darker turn with cyber bullying, but this stage has issues too. I’ve spoken to the experts at Norton for some guidelines, and they’re a great resource if you have worries or questions about screen time and the internet for your family.


Here’s what we’re doing:

  1. Whenever possible, watching together. I want to see what my girls are enjoying, need to see if it’s appropriate and some shows have topics that are great jumping off points for bigger conversations about topics like friendship, family, travel and the environment. Of course, some are just garbage.
  2. Which brings me to minimal YouTube videos with those awful children unboxing toys, playing with slime or moving coloured plastic around. HATE. IT!!!!
  3. The kids can only use devices in communal areas like the kitchen and living room.
  4. We try to limit time to 1-2 hours a day, and no screen time after 5pm. Sometimes they watch less, sometimes it’s more. We’re human.
  5. But when we say enough, enough.
  6. As they get older, I want an open dialogue about what they’re watching, so we need to start talking about what’s happening online now, even if it means I know a weird amount about seagulls thanks to Puffin Rock…
  7. And I’m on my own mission to reduce the time I spend on my phone in front of the kids. I want to be present.


My children are happy, healthy and active. They’re engaged in the world around them, and that includes what they watch and consume online. That’s normal now – though I realise in ten years’ time an expert will point out that we had it all wrong! For now, we’re just doing our best.


So what do you do in your home with your kids? What has worked, and what was a big fat disaster in your house? And what are you worried about?


I’d love to know, so please comment below, and let’s make this post a resource for other parents.


3 responses to “How should we parent in the digital age?”

  1. nitiya says:

    That’s a much needed article ! To be v honest screen time in my case is only 2 hours in a week. Thursday n Friday or just in case it’s that day of the month. I function without a nanny as of now ,so it is v challenging.

    To add to your last point. I have taken a how and trying to be off my phone from 2 to 8 pm….so he Sees me more with him than the phone. It has helped me do MORE stuff n feel better too.

  2. Liz says:

    Very good article. No one has a crystal ball but we can’t beat ouseevs up that we aren’t parenting exactly like our parents did as we are living in a different world with different challenges
    I try and limit screen time during the week to minimal amounts but whilst I’m at work (after school) it’s tricky to monitor. Weekends I’m less strict as we all need downtime (meaning I need downtime) but we always get some good out door time too. I’m working on putting my phone down more

  3. I can relate to what you say about cartoons, I’ve used them to get work done when she was younger. But at 8, there’s a long school day, after-school activities, play, study before some downtime with TV at dinner so we’re sorted. Her tab has age-appropriate parental controls and on TV, we end up watching are shows like Masterchef which we can see as a family. The trouble really happens in summer when there is no scope to be outdoors, no friends to play with indoors (as most are travelling) and no school for over 8 weeks!! I think the problem in UAE is more seasonal than anything else, if someome could find a solution for it 🙁

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