Online in lockdown – how much is too much?

By Dr Deborah Trengove, Director of Pastoral Care at St Leonard’s College.

Many of us, children and adults alike, are spending more time on screens and devices than ever before. With both learning and much of work online, technology can also be a great way to connect with friends. In thinking about your children’s current online activities, we need to take a few things into account.

Pre-lockdown limits might need to adapt to enable young people to play, talk and share with their friends. Different ages and personalities will do this differently: face time calls, games with mates and group chats are some of the ways that kids can get together with their friends during lockdown. This social connectedness is vital to children and adolescents and an essential part of their need to belong to a peer group. It is also important that they simply have some fun when so many other activities are on hold.

However, there are still some basic principles that shouldn’t change:

  • Balancing screen time with physical activity and getting outside;
  • Time off screens before going to bed – at least an hour;
  • No devices in bedrooms at night;
  • Having some screen-free time each day and even a screen free day on the weekend;
  • Knowing what apps, games and websites your children access.

It is also a good idea to replicate the school day by having phones in a “home locker” to help reduce distractions and remove the temptation to constantly check social media for latest updates. Research shows that even having a phone in your workspace is a distraction as there is an awareness of the potential it carries and notifications disrupt attention, making learning inefficient and reducing motivation.

Adolescents also are at greater risk of developing addictions – to anything that hooks them in. We have always tried to protect them from smoking, drinking and drug addictions and now we need to consider technology-based addictions too.

It helps to understand the hormones which underpin our reward system. Three key hormones are at play: dopamine is the driver, it gives us that buzz that comes with a surge of cortisol in a game or when we get attention through social media; seratonin creates the pleasant chilled feeling that follows; GABA is a hormone that acts as a break on the dopamine accelerator, otherwise we would constantly seek out the “dopamine hit” and seek ever greater stimulation and rewards.

However, GABA levels drop in adolescence, for reasons which are not entirely clear – perhaps it is enabling the path to independence and neurodevelopmental maturation. What it means is that adolescents don’t yet have the brakes they need to manage these reward-seeking urges. It remains the job of adults to act as the brakes by setting limits and giving them time away from the reward – pleasure – reward cycle which fuels addiction to as it seeks ever higher dopamine set points.

If you want to read more about this, I recommend David Gillespie’s Teen Brain – as he explores the links between screens, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours in teenagers.

This means that parents still need to manage the level of their children’s online connections, even if allowances have been made for the current lockdown. There will be a post-COVID world and we don’t want to be battling all night gaming and social media obsessions when it comes.

Finally, as we continue to work through this period of remote learning and social restrictions, with its various challenges, at St Leonard’s College we encourage parents to share any concerns with those staff who are sharing this journey with them and their children. We understand that there will be ups and downs and days when not all goes smoothly.

Presenting a hopeful perspective with messages of optimism will help children find daily positives and give them reassurance that their learning and friendships will come through lockdown intact.

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