It’s no secret that children are spending more time on their phones than ever before. Young people have grown up in an era where using technology from an early age is practically unavoidable – leading to fears they are more vulnerable to developing addictions to social media apps and their smartphones.
Now former Facebook employees have spoken about designing addictive technology that may cause harm to youngsters.
Speaking on a BBC Panorama programme, Smartphones: The Dark Side, which will air at 7pm on BBC One tonight, a former platform manager at the tech firm claimed that Facebook’s aim was to “addict” people. “They know what the negative effects are and they are not being honest,” Sandy Parakilas said.
Parakilas, who likened social media to a “slot machine”, stopped using the service after he left the company in 2012. He said: “It literally felt like I was quitting cigarettes.”
Facebook told the BBC that its products were designed “to bring people closer to their friends, family and things they care about”. And it said “at no stage does wanting something to be addictive factor into that process”.
But internet addiction (or phone addiction, or technology addiction – whatever you choose to call it) is something a lot of parents worry about. So how do you make sure your child has a healthy relationship with social media apps?
Here we’ve found a few tips for fostering balance, setting boundaries and helping your family to cut down on screen time.
1. Have a ‘bedtime’ for phones
Studies have found that using technology at night can worsen the quality of children’s sleep. Not only can kids get addicted to the endless scrolling feature, but the artificial light from screens can inhibit the production of melatonin – the hormone that makes them feel sleepy.
Asking your children to power down their tablets, phones and other devices at least one hour before bed sets healthy night-time habits and stops the urge to endlessly browse the internet all night.
2. Plan outdoor activities
The best way to kick your child’s phone habit? Limit the potential for bored scrolling by distracting them with something fun. Whether enrolling them in a local sports club, introducing them to a new skill or simply making the most of the good weather by going on a family walk, get creative with some forward planning.
The exercise and fresh air will do wonders for their mood, and it will remind them that there’s more to life than spending hours glued to a smartphone.
3. Set a good example
If you’re expecting your children to cut down on their mobile phone use, then you need to practise what you preach. Banning your children from using their apps, and then spending family meal times incessantly scrolling through yours, sets a negative example for youngsters.
Implement phone-free times and make sure that everyone sticks to them. When it comes to spending quality time together, you could even try phone stacking: a trick where everyone piles their phones on top of one another in the middle of the table, so nobody can get distracted mid-conversation.
4. Let kids help set the rules
Make children aware of the negative effects of too much phone time and get them involved in planning the times where they think they should be able to access the internet. This way, it will feel more like a mutual decision, rather than an unreasonably enforced punishment.
5. Homework first
If you feel like your child’s studies are being affected by their phone use, implement the rule that they can only access their apps once they’ve completed their homework. Taking away phones during study times will also help them to focus on the task at hand.
6. Find a natural stopping point
Switching off a game in the middle of a level is a sure-fire way to foster animosity – how would you like it if it was done to you? Be respectful and give you kids a 10-minute warning before they have to stop. This should give them enough time to finish up what they’re doing.
7. Keep an eye out
Technology might be the problem, but it can also help you to find a solution. There are apps that can help you to monitor your child’s technology use, such as "Moment", which automatically tracks how much your family uses their iPhone and iPad each day. Together, you can set daily limits on their device and be notified when they go over.
Ultimately, if you’re worried about how much time your child is spending on their phone, cutting down is always a good idea. Studies have found that apps like Instagram and Snapchat have a negative impact on children’s mental health, putting them at risk of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
What’s most important when balancing technology use is to give your child the responsibility of using their mobile device sensibly, keeping an open line of communication and making sure that your children know about both the positive and negative aspects of social media.