The parent-teacher community has barely made peace with online schooling. And it is now battling another speed bump: that of kids browsing the internet for videos on gaming, clips of Indian Premier League matches that they might have missed or for catching up with friends. Is this even possible without the prefrontal cortex having been developed. As a child, I would get caught for eating chocolate behind the curtain. So, then how are these kids executing these clever plans that require a significant amount of cognitive functioning and courage?
It turns out that what we assume to be meticulous planning and execution, and defiance is actually unregulated impulse control combined with peer pressure within a yet-to-fully developed brain. It is a far cry from courage. With immersive technology available and eyes glued to the screens, children have been handed over the largest ever bag of soft, fuzzy candy floss, while also being asked to ration its consumption. How is that even possible?
With news and facts of the world becoming available to us in seconds, we struggle with sustaining our attention and using time efficiently. The online markets work on the premise of converting our attention into an asset and an investment for them. This has now started to disturb education, and create emotional concerns in our children.
Neuro-imaging research proves that our brain fully develops only by age 25. Higher cognitive functioning, mature decision making and problem solving, application of certain knowledge depends upon this physiological development. So our expectation that “they should understand the damage this will do” is biologically unrealistic.
The human brain is not fully-developed by puberty. Between the ages of 10 and 25, the brain undergoes changes that have important implications on cognition and behaviour. While they seem to be growing up at the same pace as their typing speed, we can't wait till they are 25 to start talking to them, so we have to use what they will be able to process.
Children are very good at exploring , learning and adapting. They love activities, experiments and discovering new things. And mostly they love spending time, and doing things with their parents.
While empathising with their limited assimilating powers, we could try swinging the following:
Use tools: Get a pillow case or a paper bag and ask them to keep stuffing it until they feel it's full or too heavy. Then stick a post-it, saying “the very tired brain of (your child’s name)”. They will most definitely argue that school is responsible for most of the stuffing. Now ask them to remove everything and carefully refill it with what’s important. Discuss with them how they will decide what is important, necessary, safe and healthy.
Have a candle light (no fan/ac) dinner and talk to them about the uses of fire, and the pollution that would be caused if every home had to still use fire for several household purposes. Move on to discussing how electricity has solved many problems. Discuss the advantages and uses. One thing that serves a purpose can also cause damage, when used poorly or excessively. Bring up the need for sustainable energy. Similarly discuss the pros and cons of technology. Why do they think it was invented? Discuss what this tool does and how it helps us, communities and the world. What happens if we overuse or misuse it?
Explain that technology and gadgets are tools, not toys: Tools can hurt, from a spanner and a hammer to a tablet. Discuss the difference between leisure, play and entertainment, and the times when they need to use tools to learn, explore and discover. Tools and toys differ in purpose and value.
Set boundaries: These are more important than ever before. That only school related screen time is allowed during school hours is a necessary contract that needs to be drawn and respected. As I hear parents lamenting about the pandemic and the impact it’s having on their child’s education, I often get answers that clearly indicate absence of assertive boundaries. Discuss consequences, invite children to decide the consequences and encourage them to take responsibility. This discussion can also extend to “different house rules” if they mention their lucky friends who have the best parents in the world!
Connect attention and disrespect: Nothing works better than using one of our own slips for our advantage! When we land up ignoring them while responding to a hilarious joke on a chat, or even helping a friend with urgently needed contact numbers, they feel disrespected. Similarly, watching videos while our teachers are attempting to teach us amounts to the same.
Give them something to invest their energy in: Every child has something they love to do. it's absolutely fine to take some time to discover them. While the global pandemic has imposed certain restrictions on movement outside the house and social contact, we could explore indoor activities that children may enjoy. Once they have this, setting a routine to help them invest in this activity will help them feel respected and appreciated other than being able to learn something.
Self regulate: Set good gadget usage values in the house. Children are watching us and learning. While at work, we often get sucked into watching chat videos, browsing the net or catching up on something. Empathise with that slip and help children set reminders if they catch themselves slipping and help them to curb this temptation.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.