Apprenticeship to independence

Screens, and scream-free parenting. The template – an apprenticeship to independence.

AS promised the sequel to my last riff on screen-time. I am often asked to present to parent groups on active, digital parenting in businesses and in schools, and it’s such an interesting, vast, and fast-moving topic. There are so many aspects to it, self-regulation, safeguarding, security, behaviour, relationships, FOMO, fitting in and being different. And as a parent, I’m in the thick of it! Our 11-year-old is watching some of her peers get their smartphones, she is looking on with natural curiosity and envy with the haves and have not, wondering what she’s missing on the WhatsApp groups. And of course, those feelings are going to powerfully accelerate in the transition to secondary school. Last night it was really lovely to host an informal Zoom meet of parents from her year group and facilitate the sharing of concerns, ideas, approaches, skills present and skills needed in our children and decant some of the overwhelm at the realisation of the sheer power that the accelerated presence and reliance of devices post-lock-down has had in the lives of our families and our children. It was interesting and empowering to hear our concerns resonate with others, and hear some of the amazing wit and wisdom in the tips and tricks for enabling our lovely children to launch on the digital world without becoming one dimensional. A key area of focus was the addictive quality of smartphones, tablets and their apps. And the ease with which children 10-14 at that developmental stage of early adolescence are so ripe for being at the mercy of the novelty, the hooks the dopamine kicks that keep us all hooked on our screens. How can we work towards ensuring that they stay in the driving seat with this technology which is not part of all of our lives – rather than it driving them? Here’s a framework age by stage to walk you through it. Let me know what you think?  

I’m going at it from a proactive point of view. And you may read elements and think CRIPES! That ship left the harbour LONG AGO!! It’s too LAAAATE!!! And yeah. It’s true that for many of us, the red lines we may have had in mind – our visualisations of how we wanted screen time to be at home have been redrawn by circumstance. Who hasn’t struggled for headspace in lockdown and allowed Nanny Minecraft, Nanny Tiktok or Nanny Fortnite take over from Nanny McFee? 

BUT here’s the thing about family life. It’s a marathon – not a sprint. And we do get to notice rupture – when things aren’t as we want them – and make repair. And sometimes, it comes from a defining moment, a revelation that shows you something’s gone too far – or just from a series of micro observations and your parental gut instinct that something’s not quite right. Aeroplanes spend most of their time in the sky off-course. It is the pilots making course corrections continually that usually get us to where we were planning to go. So dig down this summer. Have a think about where it is you NOW want to get to with the kids and their screen and their time, and their balance, and their wellbeing. It’s not too late to check in and – challenge what’s going on that is detrimental, champion what you want to improve AND WHY it matters and make some changes. Put a bomb under the default of habit and re-design it. However, it takes strategy, clarity, compassion, skilled negotiation and authority: the resolve to know your walk-aways, the must-haves so that you say what you mean, and mean what you say. It’s why I do what I do in my work as a speaker, and in my work as a coach.

Life by design, not by default. 

The age by stage parenting model of shopping, bear with me because if you imagine the world of the internet as being like an ENORMOUS store of wonders – some fragile, some healthy, some not so much THINK about the model you already probably used to go shopping with your little one because I am guessing you didn’t let your curious anarchic, gorgeous little toddler loose on those shelves neither should we with the amazing online world they can access via their devices, and then in the next text box, I’ll map onto that the equivalent online.
• 0-2 When your child was a baby – they stayed in the buggy while you shopped. They were strapped in.
• 2-5 When they were a toddler, they stayed in the trolley seat. They did not run down the aisles picking stuff off the shelves and causing mayhem.
• When they were too big for the trolley seat, they stayed by your side – or they did not come to the shop, or they got lost and had one of their first big scares. Not to mention yours!
• When they were able to form a mental map of the supermarket and where you were going to be, they could pop over to fetch some potatoes and help actually do the shopping.
• When they were able to independently manage money, and manage a short journey, they could do little shopping errands for you – buy eggs and milk when you’d run out at home.
• When they were teens and able to manage an allowance, go out and come back reliably with friends without getting into trouble because they were receptive to your training them in what’s safe and what’s not, they could hang out in the town centre.

Screen-time from birth. They were unlikely to be able to focus on a screen in a meaningful way for any length of time because YOU were their chief delight. They might have grabbed your phone to experience what you are so interested in but put it into their mouth.

Screen-time 2+ (approx)If they had access to a device you held it for them, and supervised exactly what they accessed and when. The device may have been very limited in function and built to be robust and handle dropping. The apps used are chosen by you and linked to either a developmental skill or a TV favourite. What they need is plenty of attuned looks from you. Rich communication, face to face, emotion / affect match, labelling and mirroring. This is how they develop the skills to regulate emotions and begin to make meaning of experiences – feel safe, seen, soothed by caregivers not pacified. So be mindful about screens coming between you for extended periods.

4/5 years old (approx). NB these are NOT target ages – but real-world likely ages of contact which have come down a LOT! 
• You closely supervise their access to the screen, vet the activities / apps they have access to. You will be using some technical methods to limit their access to child appropriate sources – eg child-friendly search engines.
• You will allow them to pursue some online interests – gaming will be taking off in a limited way, and you will be checking whether and how they interact with other people in the virtual space – eg digital play dates. You will manage the boundaries of when, how often, how long screen-time is.
• Time limits are known, agreed. You are the boss.

• 6+ (approx.)
• They will be starting to access the web more independently – for school, and post-pandemic, for messaging individuals and groups from an earlier age.
• You will not see everything, but you will want transparency with them and sit down at intervals with them to look at quality controlling their digital interactions with peers. You will take an interest in the games they play – especially if they are competing with others online.
• You will have them in an area where they can be seen and heard in the quality of their interactions with peers and reinforce likeable, inclusive, kind behaviours. You will continue to be the pace setter for quality and quantity screen time.
• You will watch closely for their ability to self-regulate around being on and coming off-screen. If they behave like an addict having the crack-pipe removed from their cold, dead grip, you know you have work to do and will pull up your superhero parenting pants and initiate some detox and rehab.
• Time limits are known & agreed, you are the boss.

9+ (approx.) AGAIN. NB these are NOT target ages – but real-world likely ages of contact which have come down a LOT! Remember, Silicon Valley Executives do NOT permit their kids to have screens, choose forest-schooling and delay that induction to technology for a reason. BUT this is the world we are in, and this is how we can manage things relationally etc.
• This is the point of when you may or may not consider the access to data via a smartphone. Once they are on 4G all bets are off. Due diligence. Porn talks. Real-world horror-show stuff that they can and may be invited or dared to look at, beheadings, terror attacks, footage of George Floyd murder etc. Safety checks. You need to make sure they will look left and right before crossing the road to think before they look at or engage in something edgy / sexy / weird / cruel. What they see cannot be unseen. But if they see it, they need to know they can come to you and talk it through. In fact, if they don’t tell you about any of that stuff, that would be suspect – you expect online shit to happen. And you will be there for them when it does. Part of them showing their growing maturity and responsibility will come from them consulting you and being accountable.
• Technically you can make sure they are on a REALLY low data plan to limit their streaming and get them to budget their data use (preventing them full free rein on 4G). At the same time you can monitor a lot of their usage on all devices via a service like Qustodio which does all the usual plus monitoring activity on social networks, blocking content, enabling you to keep an eye on what your kid is looking at.
• They are curious, they will want to start pushing it as they hit puberty / adolescence. They need to know that school will see EVERYTHING they do. They need to know that their digital footprint is FOREVER. And that there are legal and long term future implications to their actions. They need a metaphorical Grandma/ Grandpa on their shoulder – if it’s not something they would be proud to show them, it’s not worth doing.
• ANY progression in terms of upgrades to better devices, more games, more time, less restrictions, purchase power will be earned and the principal ways of judging whether they are ready is their ability to self-regulate and take responsibility – eg pitch on the safety / security risk assessments and handle cold turkey with good grace.
• This apprenticeship to independence and responsibility TOTALLY rests on their cooperation and collaboration with you. Sharing not only what’s good about being online – but also inviting you to see what is edgy, vulnerable, it’s about TRUST not regulation. You need to accept you will never out-regulate or out-manoevre this is a digital, familial democracy. It runs on TRUST, transparency, consent.
• Play the games they play with them. Act dumb, let them show their prowess and expertise. Watch out for the subtle messaging in gaming and look closely at the interactions with others and their use of the ‘chat’ function. Know that gaming is a key way of radicalizing and the target age is 11+. So keep’em close.
• You need to be their guide by the side. Their safety online is relational – safeguarded by the quality of their attachment to you. This is why making access to the X-Box, ipad etc part of your rewards and punishments system is massively counter-productive – it destroys psychological safety and connection in this arena where their separation and distance from you exponentially increases the risk factor.

14 / 15+ Really visualising the exit strategy. How THEY NEED to be with their screens in order to launch out into life at university/ life at an apprenticeship, living independently and making their own lives.
• In this phase, they will already be competent (hopefully) in their social interactions online and be able to be responsible for their own content, conduct, contact risks.
• Now you are championing that and still having a presence as a consultant – but in a less structured way.
• Working with them in anticipation of when you or they are funding their college fees, and starting fledgling independence.
• Handling online spending, security, passwords, budgeting, impulse control.
• Checking understanding of phishing – and again impulse control around unsolicited interactions that seem too good to be true or are instantly alarming and engaging fight / flight reactions to click on links, or share information.
• Balance – are they able to independently handle a schedule where work, rest, play, connection is in harmony?
• Focus – are they able to concentrate and actively manage around the distractions and wormholes of their online existence?
• AS it says – so unforgettably-  in The Shining: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. Are they able to be boundaried about their work use of their devices. Can they switch off and do varied self-care? Self compassion? Can they handle academic and social comparison?
• Are they self-driven enough to get themselves off their devices, to bed in time and wake up in time to perform in the way they need to with whatever they need to do in the day ahead. Are they able to do this consistently?

So that’s quite a few stages and quite a few thoughts, borne of years of safeguarding work in schools both as a safeguard lead in the early days of social media and latterly as a safeguard lead governor for primary and secondary schools – as well as a parenting coach. How does this transpose into how you have or can plan to approach access to the online world? How as a parent, have you provided a similar induction and release into the power, the risks, the rewards of the online world? What security coaching have you given? What checking of their approach have you done? How transparent are they with you? What thresholds of capability do they need to reach before they upgrade their devices, their apps, their games? It’s really worth taking a moment to do your own parental due diligence here. And be intentional about what you want this summer to bring as a potential firebreak between family defaults and your purposeful design. I hope that this edition will inform, empower and inspire you to move forward with more confidence – or to reassure you that – you’ve got this! Clearly this is not exhaustive. Email me or message me with suggestions to enhance and improve! And if you feel stuck, maybe consider a consultation. But also see below for some resources to click through.

With love and gratitude,


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