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Today kids aged 5-16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of the screen. These numbers are concerning, given that it was just 3 hours in 1995. Most of a child's screen time is spent on things like instant messaging, watching TV, social networking, gaming, downloading, etc. Sometimes children are also multi-screening, which means using more than one device at the same time, such as watching TV while surfing the internet on a tablet or mobile device, so some of their screen time is concurrent. 

Indeed, the impending fear of Internet addiction/cyber addiction among children is the most relevant problem faced by parents in the present times.

 [Disclaimer- Internet/Cyber addiction is not a clinically defined term. Here we are using the term addiction to address the intensity of the problem.]

Internet addiction/ cyber addiction encompasses excessive or poorly controlled urges or behaviors regarding computer use and internet access that lead to impairment(any function being weakened)  or distress(extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain). While mental health conditions, genetics and environmental factors might be some of the causes behind the problem, the crux is that it can have detrimental effects- lack of sleep, anxiety, obesity, lack of attention, etc, on the health of your child. So as a parent, you have an important role to play in the prevention of cyber addiction. If you think that having that one time conversation with your child about a mutual contract would keep your child safe, you would be utterly wrong. A constantly developing child and cyber world requires up to date practices of prevention. 

Become more tech-savvy

Most parents share the feelings of mistrust, paranoia, fear about the cyber world and technology. Here's a perspective. How will you be able to understand your child, who is growing up in an Internet age without understanding technology? For example, you wouldn't be able to prevent your child from consuming certain types of media , such as violent video games, if you don't understand how such applications are rated. So say NO TO TECHNOPHOBIA

Checking history folders and internet logs, learning about parental control tools and softwares, changing social media privacy settings, usage controls and installing web browser filters all necessitate some knowledge about technology. A parent should learn the terminology (both technical and common) and be familiar with the computer, at least enough to know what your child is doing online. Take an active interest in the internet and learn about your child's online activities from their most visited sites to favorite shows. 

The best way to become more tech savvy is to just start trying. With any technology-related questions, Google (or your preferred search engine) is the best place to begin with. If you're unsure about how an app works or anything else, ask your child for assistance. We all need help at some point, so don't be afraid to seek help from someone who knows more than you.

Draft a mutual contract

The word contract itself suggests the agreement of two parties. However, as a parent you might be motivated to set rules for your child on your own accord. But remember the last time you imposed something on your child, was it fruitful in the end? That is why it is always preferable to involve your child in the discussion of their internet and device use. This move would not only empower the child to translate that agreement into behavior but to also evolve positive feelings of respect and connection towards you. 

The first obvious sign of Internet addiction is excessive use of gadgets. So it's apparent that we need to begin with working on time constraints. You’ll need to have an agreed-upon time limit for each device. 

  • Begin with how much time can be spent on purposeful and thought provoking content vs a thought paralyzing content. Remember that a 100 calorie intake from a packet of lays is different from a bowl of salad. 
  • Specify limits on how much time can be spent on social media applications like Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat. Remember that the algorithm of these apps is designed such that it acts as a breeding ground for addictive behaviors. 
  • Also establish rules for when the family should not be on their devices, such as two hours before bedtime and during meal times. 
  • Talk about what will happen in case the agreement is not followed through.

Remember that watching pornography or playing video games can be some highly addictive activities. So, in a contract one must have clear boundaries regarding age-inappropriate content.

Communication is key

Sometimes the thing pushing your child towards internet addiction are not their unsafe habits but the external environment. Ongoing experiences like family conflicts, bullying or cyberbullying, extortion, seclusion from friend groups, etc can motivate the child to use the cyber world and technology as an escape mode. As a parent, it then becomes your responsibility to identify and eliminate such possibilities as much as possible. The process becomes much easier if you are an involved parent in the relationship who constantly checks in on the child's online and offline experiences and provides them with a safe and non-threatening space. 

Also, explain to your child the various consequences of a psychological dependence on the internet and gadgets. Tell them about the risk of obesity, inadequate sleep and poor grades , all in a non-threatening manner. Also give them a negative correlation of less screen time and improved mood, connecting with loved ones, and so on.

Update the practices

The single message that can't be stressed on enough is that one-time actions will never be fruitful in the long term. Your definition of healthy and unhealthy tech usage will need regular updates. Understand that the cyber world and your child are developing hand in hand. That is why you need to constantly update your knowledge about the tech world, parental control software, cyber safe habits, parent-child conversations, family contracts, etc. As and when your child starts maturing, adapt your conversations to be more age-appropriate. Start tweaking your family and safety agreements bit by bit. Consider how the limit of 1 hour screen time for a kindergarten child would not be feasible for a 17 year old teen who does much of his schoolwork online.

Involve them in regular activities

Social interactions in the offline world are optimum for the overall functioning of human beings. Encourage your child to seek out and get involved in activities that don't require a screen. As far as possible, try to involve your child in social events such as family gatherings, family outings, cultural festivals, annual social gathering, school excursions, and so on. You can also begin by enrolling your child in clubs that interest them or assisting them in pursuing hobbies that they enjoy. Hobbies can keep your mind from slipping into the interruptive cycles of addiction and keep your body occupied with a productive activity. This approach of integrating the child into the real world would not only limit their screen time, but would also expose them to other children who are highly ambitious, motivating them to be self-driven individuals.

When at home, encourage them to be a part of more productive activities like family conversations, meditating, reading books, going for a daily walk, etc.

Be a role model

Whether you agree or not, the irresistible pull of technology and cyber space attracts both parents and children. The question is, do we practice what we preach to our children?

If parents check their phones every hour, work or surf the internet on their laptops late at night, binge watch their favorite shows, do not take breaks from using their phone on the dining table or when it's time to sleep, and so on, children will normalize those activities and end up doing the same. The best way to teach children the critical skill of unplugging is to practice and demonstrate mindful use of technology yourself.

In trying to execute all the above mentioned strategies, remember to be patient with yourself and your child. Try to not slip into an authoritarian style of parenting or adopt extreme measures out of fright. Many parents become enraged when they notice signs of Internet addiction in their child and confiscate their device as a form of punishment. This approach invites trouble as your child will internalize the message that they are bad, and they will start seeing you more as an antagonist rather than an ally. Instead, establish clear, mutual boundaries and stay committed to them. Don't forget to have age-appropriate conversations with your child, while also revisiting and rewriting the old rules. We at Cactus believe in Responsive and conscious parenting.

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