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Screen Time Should Be Set By You, Not By ‘silly’con Valley!

The Internet we use today has become not just a habit but an enslaving addiction! It impacts the social behaviour of both the young and the adult alike. For a parent, it’s the impulse to check a message notification. For a young child, it is the attraction of YouTube, Facebook or Twitter and what these platforms have to offer. Even when you decide to just check them out for a minute, you will end up spending an hour at the least. Such is the pull of social media. And to think that you need the assistance of Screen Time Control Technology to help minimize its usage is like adding insult to injury!

The digital impact on children is reflected in the preoccupation of even the very young with their smartphones is not a new norm. It began with the TV screen at home, but now children and young people are seen engrossed with their handheld devices in public spaces, everywhere, and at any time of the day or night. This activity is also the subject of media headlines and increasingly, a cause for growing familial conflict.

Internet Matters, a London-based, not-for-profit organization revealed a horrifying and worrying trend of how social media influences behaviour in the form of increasing sexting, cyberbullying, online grooming, identity theft and radicalisation through social media platforms. But it doesn’t stop there, the study went on to reveal that 40% of secondary school-aged children and 34% of primary school-aged children ‘feel’ worried that they are addicted to the Internet. This is what bothers young children and keeps them worried throughout the better part of their day.

To make things worse, parental boundaries set on digital use seem to have little effect, technology continues to have a firm grip on the way children behave and interact online. Just as the designers of “high-tech devices and service providers intended”. Your child is just another soul to be manipulated at will. There is no plausible way your child can resist the techniques used. Or is there?

Tech companies are rewiring our brains

How Screen Time Is Affecting Our Kids.

If the notion of the positive and negative impact of technologies influencing your thoughts, beliefs, or actions seems far-fetched or unbelievable, consider this: imagine a website that makes an activity quicker, more enjoyable, or more convenient, what will you do?

Rather than consulting an encyclopedia, you simply type your question into a search engine. Instead of scouring local bookstores for your mother’s desired cookbook, you order it from an online retailer. The speed and convenience of these websites have effectively encouraged you to alter your behaviour and embrace their services.

Beyond mere convenience, psychologists have observed that smartphones subtly alter your behaviour by prompting you to repeatedly check such platforms — a reaction triggered by the dopamine surge from receiving new message notifications. Even seemingly basic features like instant messaging carry persuasive elements.

Now consider other technological aspects that have impacted our beliefs or behaviours. One established concept in communication and behaviour studies is called the Cultivation Theory. Originally applied to television, it states that prolonged exposure to media gradually moulds one’s perception of the world. Put simply, the media you consume shapes your reality. If your news intake primarily consists of violence and conflict, you could start believing that the world is inherently violent.

This theory extends to digital media as well. Have you ever scrolled through your Facebook feed and noticed a stream of political gossip shared by your friends? It’s possible that you later found yourself predominantly thinking about politics as well. The digital content you engaged with created a perception that politics was of utmost importance, consequently influencing your beliefs, even if temporarily.

The positive and negative impact of technologies

The positive and negative impact of technologies.

Children are likely to be positive about the prospects what the digital age offers and are more convinced that it adds substantial value to their lives. There are, however, multiple indications that their digital interactions and excursions make them feel overwhelmed or do not offer a meaningful way to connect to others. This quote from a 16-year-old sums up this problem succinctly, “When you’re not on your phone or social media, you feel as if you don’t know what’s happening.”

This is the power of carefully designed persuasive techniques and strategies that are integrated into the digital products and services that children use. Parents are often told that their children are ‘digital natives’, which implies that children are in control.

In reality, research consistently shows young people do not climb far up the digital ‘ladder of opportunities’, but instead spend most of their time on a handful of platforms, and these are predominantly social media-based.

Like stated earlier, today’s headlines are obsessed with bullying, sexual content and grooming, to which the standard response is asking parents to teach children to be resilient. This suggests that children and parents are able to make effective decisions regarding their own safety and well-being,

in an environment over which they have little control and which has not been designed to meet their needs or serve their best interests.

Parents are also told that their child’s life prospects are dependent on technology and that only those competent and confident with digital technologies will survive the radical changes taking shape in the job market.

Adding to this deeply held belief, professional consultancy firms badger about how around 30% of jobs in the UK are potentially at high risk of automation by the early 2030s. The World Economic Forum advises equipping children and students with skills to harness the power of technology, to ensure that current and future generations are not ‘left behind in the global digital skills race’.

This combination of conflicting messaging — that children are in charge and in full control; that they are totally exposed and at risk; and that they better work towards acquiring better and better digital skills — leads many parents to inaction. Neither separately nor together, do such messages account for the full range of opportunities on offer, nor the difficulties that the digital environment presents for children, among them the impact of what persuasive design is meant to achieve.

What do influencers have to say?

Children and Smartphones: The Impact of Screen Time

A Parent of a 12-year-old had this to say, “We as parents can set boundaries and enforce them when our child is at home. But once she is out of our sight, it is another issue. I also resent having to ‘police’ her all the time. That isn’t the sort of parent I want to be!” [Source]

While trying to manage their children’s use of the Internet, parents often struggle with their own digital use. Web-based research platform D’scout found that the average adult smartphone user touched their device 2,617 times each day!

“Parents have double standards, they complain that I am online all of the time”. According to a 17-year-old child, “Often I am told that I spend too much time on my smartphone, but I see they too are doing the same.” So the question of asking parents to be role models to their children is really a non-starter and is asking for too much. Reality negates this notion.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, USA, for instance, reported: “Young children are coming to schools with poor speech and significantly reduced language skills. They have poor social skills and their motor skills are underdeveloped. Schools are having to address this issue which seems to have a knock-on effect, leading to too much screen time at home!” Putting those in charge in a catch-22 kind of predicament.

Another study led by Harvard Medical School found that students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased. According to one teacher, “Earlier I used to see students troop out of the class at lunchtime ready to interact with other students. Today, most students just sit and while away their entire lunch break engrossed in playing on their personal devices!” What a shift in social behaviour!

Control by design

A diagram of the persuasive design strategy, showing how it uses psychological triggers to keep users engaged.

What children, parents and teachers are experiencing is not the result of intentional use, but the consequence of deliberate design strategies that train device users to remain engaged and interactive, at any cost. Installed individually or in combination, this design approach is collectively known as the persuasive design strategy.

The war on a child’s attention is driven by how much time they spend online. Bear in mind that the difference between online and offline lives has blurred to a large extent. What has now become critical to consider is to know ‘what’ a child is doing online and clearly understand ‘why’ she is doing so. If parents let persuasive design features dominate the decisions their child makes online, they will be playing a big role in hampering the growth of creativity and the development of an entire generation!

If we don’t have appropriate measures to counter this, it will have negative and far-reaching consequences not just for a child, but also for families and the entire society at large. We urgently need to consider whether our children are free, valued and safeguarded online anymore!

Programmable technology, both controls and reinforces human feelings, in order to perpetuate deeply entrenched behaviours. Variously called ‘reward loops’, ‘captology’ (How computers rewire our brains and why we let them), ‘sticky’, ‘dwell features’ and ‘extended use strategies’… Persuasive design strategies are deliberately baked into online services and devices so as to attract and maintain users’ attentiveness and embed habitual responses.

As lifestyle routines and behaviours are formed early in life, they are very difficult to change or modify once they take root. The costs our children pay are real and are palpable. These include an increase in anxiety, unprovoked social aggression, and restless sleep patterns, resulting in a negative impact on a child’s education, health and well-being. To make matters worse, continuous data surveillance made possible by influential design tactics, raises several ethical, moral and legal questions.

But why should we care?

Influence of persuasive technology on child

This might seem like an insignificant by-product of technology. But the fact that cannot be ignored anymore is technology developers are intentionally creating more and more persuasive technology products and services that benefit them financially. And this is a one-way street!

Today’s designers and developers often follow Fogg’s behaviour change theory, which builds on earlier communication theories. To prompt someone to take an action, such as downloading an app or purchasing a new phone, three conditions must be met: the person wants to do it; they’re capable of doing it; and they’re given a trigger. This trigger is effective when there’s strong motivation or when the task is easy to carry out.

Designers use these criteria to shape their technologies. For instance, think of a movie streaming platform feature that automatically plays the next episode unless stopped. The aim apparently is to keep users engaged and watching.

This strategy aligns with Fogg’s criteria: users want to know what happens next, they’re motivated to continue, and stopping requires more effort than letting the episode play. The trigger here, is the next episode, waiting to start as soon as the one you are watching comes to an end. Through this design technique, the movie streaming platform persuades viewers to keep using their service and watch more.

The movie streaming platform applies the same tactic to make it easier to continue a subscription than to cancel it. With valuations running into billions of dollars and a subscriber base exceeding hundreds of millions worldwide, this approach has clearly paid off.

A similar premise drives developers to recognize how technology can shape our behaviour and beliefs. The addictive nature of mobile phones and their apps, for instance, drives the mobile industry’s annual revenue which runs into trillions of dollars!

Technology is profoundly reshaping us in countless other ways. Computers in our surroundings lead to complete behaviour transformation — in other words, they persuade us. This is what ‘captology’ and ‘behaviour change’ helps do. As parents, we too can help rewire the brain. We really have no choice left when it is our children’s well-being is at stake.

How tech companies can help

Modifying Children's Online Habits

It will be wonderful if technology companies begin to respect young users and help parents bring a semblance of control over their child’s behaviour when online. By doing so, designers and developers of technology will be helping modify the habits and activities of their own children as well.

For example, what if silicon valley can help:

  1. Treat the neurotic use of technology as a public nuisance.
  2. Design all services to make it as easy to get offline as it currently is to get online.
  3. Keep auto play default off, and if changed, switch back to ‘off’ once a child logs out or navigates away.
  4. Keep notifications and default ‘off’, such as buzzes, pings and all other non-specific alerts.
  5. Integrate pause and save buttons so that children don’t have to continue to stay online just to continue playing video games or finish a project.
  6. Stop gathering children’s data for the purpose of personalising services or as a price of entry.
  7. Incorporate a pop-up that indicates time spent and advises a child to take a break.

While technology companies can do this very easily, the tougher job of helping reset their child’s brain is best left to parents and neuroplasticity. The brain’s capabilities are still not fully understood, and most aspects might remain elusive. Yet, one well-established phenomenon is neuroplasticity. This term describes the brain’s ability to restructure itself when adaptation is needed, facilitating ongoing development and change throughout a lifetime.

For example, the brain can relearn by repairing old pathways or forming new ones. Activities that encourage such positive neuroplasticity can help reshape negative patterns, modify habits and behaviours and enhance well-being. Besides, such rewiring of the brain is achievable from the comfort of our homes!

How exercise can ensure mental well-being

A young woman with her child excersing.

While the physical advantages of exercise are widely acknowledged – developing stronger muscles, enhanced fitness, and improved sleep – it’s crucial to recognize that exercise extends its transformative power to the realm of the brain too. Exercise can exert a remarkable influence on cognitive functions, such as memory and learning, while also fostering neuroplasticity.

Exercise transcends the physical domain, actively contributing to the refinement of fine motor coordination and the enhancement of brain connectivity. These neural adaptations, in turn, hold the potential to offer a shield against the perils of cognitive decline, safeguarding the mental sharpness that is integral to a child’s thriving life.

Physical activity and exercise act as a catalyst for elevated blood flow and the proliferation of brain cells, factors intimately tied to the easing of depressive symptoms. Several studies have underscored the powerful link between regular exercise and a reduction in the intensity of depression, underlining the potential of physical exercise and activity as a holistic tool in the battle against mood disorders, behaviour modification and addiction of the Internet.

Engaging in physical activities unlocks a trove of social benefits. These interactions foster robust social connections, which have a direct impact on overall quality of life and emotional well-being. The significance of this lies in the fact that strengthened social ties provide a potent buffer against anxiety and depression, offering an additional avenue to enhance mental health.

Exercise and physical activity’s potential to rewire the brain is a multifaceted marvel. From bolstering cognitive functions and combating cognitive decline to promoting robust brain cell growth and facilitating social connections. It has a holistic impact and a reminder that nurturing the body and nurturing the mind are intricately intertwined and that by embracing physical activity and exercise, we empower ourselves to embark on a journey toward enhanced mental well-being in the digital age.

How My Gym helps you take back control

Promoting All-Round Development Through Physical Activity.

One effective way to help young children disengage from spending too much of their time in front of screens is by involving them in physical activities that are as inspiring and exciting as what they experience sitting in front of screens.

My Gym promotes all-round development through dynamic games and physical movement that help augment the growth of neural networks in the brain. This helps children acquire critical social and intellectual skills, modify behaviours, enable them to navigate complex social situations and nurture emotional development to lead a healthier way.

About My Gym

My Gym also runs enrichment programs that lay a firm foundation for personal, academic and future growth by involving children in age-appropriate, structured and unstructured play designed to develop thinking and problem-solving skills.

Please visit any of My Gym centres to learn more about how it can support “whole-child development”. Choose a day when you are relatively free and come over with your child in tow. Your child could be an infant (as young as 6 months), a toddler or a preschooler, age is not a bar to learn how your child can get away from the screens without missing out on anything!

Please note: My Gym classrooms are thoroughly sanitized every day — the tables, the chairs, the children’s activity stations and everything else the child might touch is made safe and clean. Whenever required, children are encouraged to wear a mask, wash their hands frequently, and practice social distancing as well.

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