It has become the hot topic for our times: when schooling, work, entertainment and socializing has moved online, how do we ration our screen time? And more importantly, how do parents ensure that children are not spending all their waking hours glued to screens?
Livehealthy asked Hanan Ezzeldin, the founder of Family Hub, an online platform on parenting, and a teacher for 11 years in four different countries, to share her expert advice for some of the pressing questions of our time.
How can parents monitor their kids’ screen time?
Everyone who has kids is asking about this.
Kids are online all the time for school and then they demand some fun screen time. I like to follow the research but every family has its own unique setting. Before lockdown, the American Academy of Paediatrics said no screen time for the under twos. No child under two years old should have a phone or other device. Now they’ve changed that to 18 months and up to an hour of screen time a day, but broken up into small pieces. Video-chatting is OK or listening to music.
I honestly believe screens are here to stay and we have to make peace with that and with the fact that kids are attracted to them and even addicted to a certain extent. But we also have to accept that we have to say no and impose limits, like no screens in bedrooms or at mealtimes. No screens after watching a movie – we do something as a family instead.
Some adults are just as bad as kids….
We are not always the best role models and our kids will call us out. They will document how long we’re on our phones. During lockdown my screen time shot up to nine hours a day – my eldest son, who is 12, showed me. We talked about it as a family and I brought it down to almost five hours, which is still a lot but it’s better than before.
We have to be willing to show our kids that we make mistakes. Screens are an addiction. That phone is an emotional pacifier. We go to it when we’re emotional, frustrated – we even take it to the toilet with us! It’s important to show we’re trying to get a grip on the situation and be a model for the way to go.
What are the dangers of too much screen time?
If you’re on your mobile phone just before bed it prevents secretion of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, so it’s difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep and disrupts your biological clock.
People need sleep for overall good health. Children between the ages of five to 10 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep and 11 to 18-year-olds need eight to nine hours, otherwise their ability to learn, their memory and development will be affected. Studies show that 65 percent of people in the UAE are sleep-deprived, so a lack of sleep is not unusual in the UAE.
When teaching in high schools, I would notice that some students came to school with pale and tired faces. When I asked them how many hours they slept, some said two to three hours.
How do you help children sleep more?
Commit to specific sleep schedules according to the age group. Parents could plan a gradual increase in their child’s sleep hours to reach the recommended hours of sleep for their child’s age.
Encouraging kids to exercise regularly is a good idea. Running, playing ball, ballet, other cardio exercises – it will all make them tired so they’re more likely to go to sleep earlier.
If your child tends to be inactive, one solution might be to adopt a dog and give the child the responsibility for taking it for daily walks. A pet will also bring some positive energy to the house.
Teenagers push themselves to stay awake because their hormone levels are high and disordered, they think don’t need to go to bed early because they’re older and they want to spend more time connected to their friends, who are likely to be up late too.
Food and sleep are interconnected. More sugar and fat in the diet increases their energy. It’s preferable not to introduce sugar to children before they turn two. Focus on the quality of the food not the quantity
How do you discipline teenagers?
Unfortunately, discipline has come to be associated with punishment and is considered negative but it is not. Children need boundaries and limits in order to function and you have to create the boundaries from the start. If the chores don’t get done, there has to be a consequence and they need to know that in advance. So if they don’t do the dishes, remind them once, twice and then it’s no TV or no going out biking with their friends. They need to know they are part of how the home functions – someone needs to do the dishes!
But it can’t become a power struggle because 99.9 percent of times, you will lose. The moment my voice goes up when talking to my kids, they know they’ve won the battle.
Even if they don’t say it, teenagers really appreciate it when you speak to them like adults. Hear them out. They are the most undermined age group yet it’s so easy to deal with them if you treat them with a bit of respect. They might say things you wouldn’t consider, but a lot of times they have a point, so even if it’s against what we want to preach, try to compromise and give them a win.
What about social media?
Respect the age limits imposed by social media platforms. Under-age kids should not be on social media and this is why:
- Social media is very addictive.
- It’s not safe, even if they have private accounts. As soon as they start following, say, Justin Bieber, they are no longer invisible. There are predators out there looking for the young and vulnerable.
- Kids will look for validity from social media and that is very damaging. Ten years ago, the average age for kids becoming depressed was 15. It is now 12 and it’s because they are on social media at too young an age, comparing themselves to their peers.
- Cyber-bullying. If one girl is removed from a chat group, it can spiral out of control.
If your kids are on social media, have a conversation with them about privacy, about sexuality and their digital footprint. Explain that once they put a picture online it can’t be removed. Talk about language, which sites they can see, explain what porn is.
Do not try to be their buddy on social media. Don’t like everything they post, don’t comment about every little thing. Kids are creating fake instagram accounts for their parents to see and they have another one for their friends. This means they don’t trust parents to see what they’re doing online.
On the other hand, lots of teenagers are very open with their parents, too, which means you’ll see things you’re not happy about. My advice is let go of the little things. Of course, if there is invasion of family privacy involved or kids are saying things you don’t like simply to be fashionable, talk to them but don’t out them publicly and embarrass them in front of their friends.
What are the red flags to look out for?
If there are safety or bullying concerns, get in and get in deep. These kids are the first generation to have an additional footprint from the moment they’re born. There are so many bad people out there who could really harm childen. It’s better to have my child be mad at me than to be unsafe.
When a child tells you they feel unsafe or bullied, you need to listen. Too often, parents can be dismissive – they find out about bullying from an external source, not from the child him or herself, With boys, fathers tend to tell them to be a man, don’t whine or cry. We forget that this is a child and bullying usually comes from a group or a person of power. If a child comes to you, it’s because they are really in need because we are not their first line of defence.
Listen to them, validate their concern and most importantly, show you are willing to support them in every way. Go to the school or the neighbour or football training or ballet class. Figure out where the issue is and go to the person in control.
You need to create a support system that is more than just mum and dad. Invite the nice, kind kids over. A lot of times, when a child is being picked on, the nice kids are afraid to associate with them so the bullied child feels very lonely.
Also very importantly, show you will provide professional support by seeking out a licensed child psychologist who will really help the child regain confidence and show them how to fight back.
And if there is any self-harming going on, seek psychological help immediately and don’t leave the chld unattended. This is an emergency.
How do you get kids to open up to you?
You open up first – that’s the magic recipe. If nobody’s talking, fill the silence, tell them about your day even if it’s boring, or tell them something you remember from your childhood. Talk about anything – just create conversations. And ask their advice and take note of their opinion – you will be pleasantly surprised.
How can older siblings fill the gap?
They should educate themselves through good positive resources on sex education, puberty, privacy, all those hush-hush subjects. With all the resources out there, there’s no excuse not to be educated these days. Talk about the issues in a scientific, mature way and if you have experience of them, do share it.
What’s the story behind Family Hub?
My dream was to work in advertising but after I had my first child, all my priorities and plans changed. I went into education by pure chance, but teaching has been the best thing to happen to me. I’ve taught around 2,000 students and learned a lot of life lessons through them.
Because of my husband’s job, we’ve lived in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and now the UAE, and naturally, moving around and changing cultures has affected my children. In Switzerland, I gained a positive discipline certificate and became an accredited educator for teachers and parents and this motivated me to set up Family Hub to share information and ideas on education with whoever was interested.
I also host monthly support groups, where we talk about some of the daily struggles we face with children and with other parents I try to find solutions. I started with a Facebook page but have now shifted to Instagram and am currently working on launching a website and a personal podcast.
One last piece of advice?
Let go of the little things. Share your children’s interests and spend quality time with them so that you understand their world.
Hanan Ezzeldin was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on March 10, 2021. She can be contacted via Instagram
With files and Arabic translation from Reeneh Shraim and Lina Elmusa.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.