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When the new school year begins, children's tech habits will need to be recalibrated.

Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

The summer of COVID-19 has been screen-soaked. From virtual camps and online summer school to chatting with friends and engaging in endless hours of gaming, the onslaught of screens on children has been relentless and, to a large extent, unavoidable.

But come September, when the new school year begins, tech habits will need to be recalibrated. “This is a great time to rewire our kids’ brains and create new healthy pathways for the use of technology,” says Dr. Shimi Kang, addiction psychiatrist, speaker and author of The Tech Solution. “Take food, for instance. In the beginning of the pandemic, we let go a little – stress eating, snacking, etc. – but quickly realized that this is not sustainable, that it is unhealthy for us in the long run. Similarly, after having loosened up on the rules around technology and screen time, we now need to scale back the use of junk tech, especially by our kids.”

Author and addiction psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang.

Handout

In her book, she cites examples from sessions with her own patients and explains how screen consumption affects adolescent brains. She also offers practical strategies that parents and caregivers of children can adopt to augment the benefits of good tech. “Parents always talk about setting time limits for tech usage or banning tech for long periods of time. This simply won’t work, more so now since tech has completely embedded our lives. We need to move from screen time to screen quality. We need to understand what screen consumption is doing to us at a biological level, to our brains and bodies,” she says.

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Kang outlines a plan that aims to rebalance tech consumption using the metaphor of a diet. The steps involve motivating your child to make a change in their tech habits, guiding them through the process and finally taking inventory and celebrating their efforts. But Kang acknowledges that every family will respond to the strategy differently based on its unique challenges.

“In general, it takes a certain amount of time – 21 to 90 days – to change our habits … the science differs. The point is to establish an understanding that it takes time to move off certain neuro-trails, rewire our brains and move on to healthier habits. Change is a process. We know that when we are making a behavioural change, the first response is to be in denial. Then with more information, we start to contemplate that maybe there are benefits to this change, we then prepare for change, implement it, we also relapse but then get back,” she says.

Here are Kang’s top strategies from The Tech Solution.

Handout

Talk to kids about toxic tech

Just like you talk to your child about the benefits of healthy food for their bodies and minds, speak to them about how the kind of tech they consume affects the way they feel and behave. Engaging negatively on social media, sexting, constantly looking for online validation from peers and cyberbullying are all examples of toxic tech and need to be dealt with firmly. “We block all potential gambling and pornography sites, and with our older kids I frequently check in and discuss the toxicity of FOMO, online comparisons and unintentional multitasking,” says Kang.

Limit junk tech

Scrolling mindlessly on Snapchat or constantly checking likes on Instagram are classic examples of indulging in junk tech. “When it comes to tech, there is no regulation around it. On one side of the screen is a child’s brain, which is underdeveloped ... the other side of the screen is the most sophisticated neuroscience known to us. The persuasive design of the platforms, apps and devices we use are intended to capture their attention and keep it. I suggest that parents discuss, limit and monitor video games and social media until their child seems able to regulate their own use of it,” says Kang. For parents of kids with learning differences and vulnerabilities, there’s co-morbidities like anxiety and depression that are connected to gaming addictions.

Encourage healthy tech

Kids, especially pre-teens and older, crave peer and social connection, indulge in risk-taking behaviours and seek novel experiences. Tech can be used smartly to satisfy all these propensities. “Teachers and parents will have to get creative with the tasks they assign to them – getting them to take risks and learn new things, write an essay in a different way, create a video project using tech, there’s so much that technology can do from an innovation standpoint. With healthy tech you allow yourself to care, make meaningful connections with people and are able to be creative. You can be flexible and let your kids enjoy exploring the world online as long as their time is balanced with other healthy real-life habits,” says Kang.

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