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For Melanie Kai Murray, the long months of lockdown have wreaked havoc with her attempts to keep healthy limits on technology usage for her three teenage sons.
Her sons Mackai, 14, and twins Noah and Nathan, 12, have been spending hours on devices for school but also to socialise with friends and play games, sometimes instead of their school work. Ms Murray and her husband Peter have tried everything to keep them on task, asking to see their screens, or send PDFs, or enable screen sharing.
Despite living two minutes from Manly Beach in Sydney, Ms Murray says the “immediate gratification of the screen” has become so alluring it’s sometimes hard to get them out the door, and they might complain of boredom if the family spends a day at the beach.
“Getting them back to nature, I think will quickly help children bounce back,” she said. “If you don’t, it could start to become an imbalance of what the world is and they could become highly connected to social media and other technology, which I’d find concerning.”
It is natural for children – and adults – to be using more screens during a pandemic and especially during a lockdown, when school and work are online and social and leisure activities outside the home are curtailed.
Greater Sydney has been in lockdown since June 26, while Victoria has been in its current lockdown since August but has spent 250 days of the past two years in lockdown.
The problem is international. A Canadian study, based on a longitudinal study of 1000 mothers and their children and published in the Acta Paediatrica journal in June, found children’s screen time increased by an hour a week from age 5 to 8 pre-pandemic but as COVID-19 got underway, it rose by 11 hours a week between the ages of 8 and 9.5.
Other studies have shown correlations between screen entertainment and anxiety for young adults, while Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has revealed Facebook internal research showing the damaging effects of Instagram on teenage girls.
Despite the inevitability, many parents are concerned and sharing war stories in the playground or on social media about children who seek out their iPads in the middle of the night, throw tantrums when devices are removed, and are miserable when they get taken to the park instead of being allowed to play games.
One Sydney father, who asked to be anonymous, said his 13-year-old son had recently developed a habit of watching TV shows on Netflix while also gaming, and gets very agitated if his parents ask him to stop doing both at once. His seven-year-old daughter watches YouTube and goes into a “deep grump” for half an hour when she stops.
“When we call a day off screens, we end up going through hell,” he said. “It looks a lot like addiction.”
Jocelyn Brewer, a Sydney psychologist who specialises in digital wellbeing, said it was only accurate to call it “addiction” in really significant cases, but there was definitely an increase in habitual usage, and she expected an influx of clients.
Ms Brewer said technology including communications and gaming was compelling because it met many of children’s psychological needs – connection with others, developing competence and discovering their strengths.
Ms Brewer said that was not a good thing if the children were only getting it online.
“What I do with kids in therapy is look for sources of connection, competence and control in the offline worlds as well,” she said.
“We know that you can feel really, really confident doing lots of things in Roblox but can you do that in the playground? Can you do that in handball? Can you do that in maths? So it’s about mimicking that back in ‘real life’.”
Another mother said she had screen locks on the iPads before lockdown but lost control because she had to remove them so her children could access Google Classroom.
“My son is usually very active and we’ve noticed he’s become much more despondent about going to the beach, using the pool in our complex or even meeting friends, preferring instead to remain hooked to the screen,” she said.
“My kindy girl meanwhile switches her screen to watch mindless dribble of ‘perfect’ Barbie and is already displaying signs of lack of confidence in her appearance and weight.”
Anna from Northcote in Melbourne, who asked to use her first name only, said her six-year-old son gravitates to his iPad and sometimes plays on it before she gets up in the morning.
“I’m concerned about the effect on his attention span and imagination but I wouldn’t say there’s any particular occasions where I’ve been completely alarmed,” she said. “We’re trying to wind it back and he’s getting into reading.”
Sarah Cohen from Lewisham in the inner west said her six-year-old son, who has ADHD, was getting aggressive when it’s time to finish on the iPad, so she has resorted to pretending it is lost.
“I feel a bit of guilt but it’s been a good thing for him – it’s really just eliminated so much of the conflict and calmed down with his aggression, Ms Cohen said. “He is more interested in his toys and puzzles, he is more interested in interaction with us.”
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