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With lockdown extending beyond 21 days, parents are faced with a longer period of time indoors. Some have loved their time together, and others desperate for their old routine. Devices, social media, apps and games provide an escape for both parents and kids, a much-needed “breather” in a long day of incarceration. And connecting to friends and chatting is important for humans. But life online often comes with many by-products – bullying, exposure beyond what is age-appropriate, contact from strangers, sexting. More time online naturally means more risk. Parenting will be different over this unparalleled situation, to adjust to socialising and schoolwork, but our attitude to online safety should improve in relation to the amount of screen time.

As kids are set to “return to school” (while they stay at home), millions of parents have suddenly been transformed into ‘home-schoolers’?

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, www.mysocialife.com, the leading digital life skills and online safety program in schools in South Africa, answers some key questions:

Q: What do parents need to know about screentime?

MySociaLife: Screen time depends on many factors. What type of family are you (conservative or liberal) and what type of child do you have (an obsessive user or more self-regulated and indifferent to technology?) Finally, you also need to consider what type of screen time are we talking about – there’s educational screen time, positive TV or series (wildlife shows or Bear Grylls for example), and also sport (some kids use YouTube for this).

  • In terms of screen time, for pre-teens on social media and games, it should be 1 to 2 hours a day. But ideally, social media shouldn’t even feature for kids under 12. There’s too much unwanted or unsolicited contact and content for their age.
  • For teens, it’s higher, more like 3 hours plus, with some kids online for 5 to hours and more. But every child and family is different. It’s my view that if the child is using it for online learning or coding or watching nature shows, this is very much the same as the TV that you would allow.
  • But mindless social media does require a limit because it eats time away, and disconnects us from physical connection, conversation and support.
  • Balance is key. And social media is not designed for balance. So parents need to observe, assess and adjust.

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Q: Setting boundaries isn’t easy, what steps can parents take?

MySociaLife: Sit down together and ask your child how long they should have on their devices or social/gaming platforms.

  • Then negotiate an agreement that works for you. An example agreement is on this link here. Barter personal connection with family (meal times, a movie, downtime together or a task) or you could choose chores or creativity or schoolwork in exchange for time online. In life, most things have to be earned through effort or respect. It’s a good lesson.
  • Most importantly, the best way in to start to talk and take an interest, and share what you see online and view what they see online (without judging it openly)
  • Ask lots of questions – it opens the door of communication and in turn, may widen the door of trust around your child’s online life.

Q: How can screens encourage our children to be active in a confined space?

MySociaLife: You only have to see Joe Wicks on YouTube to see what is available to get active on a screen. Google it. This is the same for creative time together or hobbies or chores. Bring a bit of the technology in (even better if it’s trending) to get them to start moving to do something offline. Online can create inspiration for time doing something offline! We forget that so often.

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Q: Which apps are the majority of kids using?

MySociaLife: I suggest parents look up on Google parent tips +  any of the following names: WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram, and HouseParty, YouTube, as these have boomed during Lockdown. Many of these can just be good social platforms to chat on and are innocent in the right hands. But each has their risks (bullying, trolling, flaming, exposure to unwanted images, sexting, and approaches from strangers) so it’s best to have a discussion about the expectations and set up the privacy settings carefully. This can be managed by the parent using an app like ScreenTime inside an Apple iPhone or via Google Play Store.

Q: How does one teach kids about fake news, so they have a handle on what’s real during Coronavirus?

MySociaLife: The main way to look at the news is that you cannot immediately trust it (sorry to be so negative!) and it largely only has credence if it’s from a trusted source like the WHO WhatsApp Group (+41 79 781 87 91) or the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/) or the Department of Health WhatsApp Group on 0600 123456. However kids aren’t interested in this level of info, so mainly they need to realize that they can’t know it all – unless they use trusted sources. That’s the lesson they really need to learn! A good way to check is to see if the headline or photo is very “over the top” making a big claim, and then check if there is an author on the article that links to that person’s profile, and also if there is a date too. Have a look at the link in the browser: “does-it-have-a-weird-name.com?” If it’s not from the BBC, or excellent science or journalism organization, how can you know credible effort has gone into fact-checking?

And one more thing, the best way is to show them the amount of fake news on the subject. Google Fake News + Coronavirus and open some of the stories.

Q: How do parents make sure their children stay safe online during lockdown?

MySociaLife: I think a good steady routine of connecting through the day and having meals together and asking them what they are doing and seeing is a good foundation. Get that door of communication open. The more you talk, the more you can see any signs or changes in behaviour. And also the more you can share your views and values. In addition, here are some tips:

  • In terms of online safety, take an interest in the apps they use (do you know which apps these are) and do your due diligence by googling those apps and the risks/challenges. Type “HouseParty app + review + parents”, or something similar.
  • Create clear boundaries of how much time online, how public or private they are (how much they share and with whom), and what you expect of them in order to earn the device/WiFi/data.
  • Make accounts private, not public. Simple as that.
  • You could possibly use an app like ScreenTime or Qustodio but kids have ways of circumventing things – so education by the parents, lots of discussions, and time together is the best solution. The apps will help but the real work is in positive parenting.
  • Ideally no phones in the bedroom until after 16. Lots of things happen at night naturally.
  • Look for a change in behaviour (something heightened) in case there has been an issue of bullying or sexting or privacy violation that happened online. They may withdraw out of fear or anxiety.