Internet addiction more likely for teenagers who feel supported by parents

“In that kind of scenario what you’re doing is avoiding teaching them how to self-regulate their reactions, behaviours, emotions – they’re just not learning that,” he said.

“It’s not done to harm the children or because they are bad parents … it’s just unthinking, something done in the moment … but if you repeat these behaviors over multiple years, as this study has looked at, it can have an increasingly negative effect.”

A behavioral physiologist’s recommendations

Dr James Donald says there are three key practices that can help protect your children, and they are more effective the earlier you start.

  1. Restricting screen time on TVs, computers, smartphones, tablets etc, in line with Australian guidelines (no more than two hours a day for children; screen time not recommended under two years.)
  2. Not using devices an hour before bedtime.
  3. Putting phones away during family time (for example, at the dinner table).

NSW Parents Council president Rose Cantali, who is a developmental psychologist, said occasionally relying on technology to distract children would be unlikely to cause long-term harm, as long as the children are also taught how to be bored.

“Don’t be hard on yourself as a parent, there’s nothing wrong with it,” she said. “It’s about teaching kids about limitations and boundaries, and parents being clear about what they want their children to develop and what type of people they want them to be,” Cantali said.

“This is the first generation of people having to deal with this … people are starting to research now so there won’t be [guidelines] until the next generation when people understand exactly what we should do.”

Donald said the study points to the central role of boundary setting, particularly for children of primary school age, to prevent bad habits forming.

Strategies can arise from three key tenets: limiting screen time, cutting out device use before bed, and keeping technology away from valuable family connection time – for example at the dinner table.

“Parents need to be the change they want to see – you need to sign up as a family and have a place in a common area where everyone logs off their devices an hour before going to bed,” Donald said.

“You may not need to be draconian about it – you could get your phone out and check something that’s part of a conversation, but then the device use is being led by the family interaction rather than as an avoidance from it.

“I think what a lot of studies are showing is it’s like eating: one massive binge at Maccas won’t ruin your health – it’s little habits, daily choices and daily conversations that happen and affect you over time.”

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Cantali said many parents were fearful of disappointing their children, but good parenting did not mean being liked at all times.

“Parents are so keen to be well engaged with their kids, but it may not always be a positive engagement – it could be a negative when they are just giving into them,” she said.

“Their brain development or emotional development isn’t formed to where they are able to control their use [of technology] – when you are giving your kid lollies, they may enjoy them, but you know you can’t give them to them all the time.”

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