The family way

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After a survey shows children under 10 spend an hour a day using gadgets like gaming devices and mobile phones, the experts discuss how long young kids should use technology for, and whether it helps or hinders their development.

By Lisa Salmon.

Today's children were born into an age of technology, and that means clever gadgets and gizmos are as much a part of their lives as pogo sticks, hula hoops and spacehoppers were a generation ago.

Research has found that the UK's under-10s spend almost an hour (58 minutes) a day using technology-based products at home, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of them owning a gaming or mobile device or a camera.

While the research, commissioned by the educational entertainment brand LeapFrog, found that just 6% of the under-10s own a personal tablet such as an iPad, 70% regularly play with their parents' computer, and 16% own their own computer.

In fact, almost a fifth of parents think their children know more about modern devices than they do - but they need to be very careful, warns psychologist Dr Caroline Schuster.

She points out that problems with excess time spent on/with electronic gadgets include nomophobia (withdrawal symptoms caused by over-use of mobile phones), repetitive strain injuries caused by texting, cyber-bullying, and dangers associated with exposure to age-inappropriate games.

But children's use of technology isn't all negative - some basic cognitive skills may be enhanced by limited time spent with electronic media, says Dr Schuster.

This includes improved memory and reaction times, and some specific games/tests improving maths skills.

But she warns: "Time spent with gadgets is fraught with dangers.

"It's important to limit/monitor time with laptops, games and social media, especially for young children."

Dr Schuster, who is also a school therapist, stresses that it's particularly important for parents to ensure that young children don't choose to spend time on electronic media over spending time with other children.

"Children need to engage with peers to learn social engagement, and this is best done face to face," she explains.

"Parents needs to engage with their children and take an interest in their child's electronic media - that's the best way to decide what's best for their child."

The Leapfrog research found that while entertainment remains the number one use of technology in the home (48%), with the rise in educational apps and gaming devices, 39% of families now use technology to aid their children's learning. In fact, almost a third of parents cite technology as a key part of their child's education and development.

But that doesn't mean they aren't worried about it.

Certainly, more than a third of parents are concerned that gadgets such as tablets and Kindles aren't age-appropriate, more than a quarter worry about online grooming, and one in 10 fear their child will be cyber-bullied.

Yet although parents may have some valid concerns about their children's screen time, less than a third (31%) insist that their children's technology use is supervised at all times.

But lack of supervision is dangerous, stresses Dr Schuster, who recommends restricting the use of electronic media for under-10s to not more than one hour per day, excluding any homework that might involve using the internet.

She says: "Parents should monitor, restrict and follow what their children do on electronic gadgets. They need to set and explain rules which involve restricting time, place and frequency of use - regardless of what their child's friends are doing."

And if you think there's a lot of technology in children's lives now, it's going to steadily increase, warns futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, who tracks and predicts developments in technology and society.

He says: "Over the next 10 years, it's likely that we'll see learning on tablets in the classroom as commonplace, with Kindles often replacing books, and learning gadgets being the materials of choice in the home.

"Video visors will even be commonly used for learning activities."

But there is a little hope for the parent technophobes out there, as he adds: "Traditional books will still have a place."

Ask the expert Q: "My seven-year-old son says he's bored all the time when he's not at school or playing with his friends, and he expects me to come up with something to entertain him. Should I constantly be at his beck and call, or should I just leave him to get on with something?"

A: Lorraine Thomas, chief executive of the Parent Coaching Academy and author of The Mummy Coach (Hamlyn, £9.99), says: "You're not alone - 'I'm bored' is a phrase that many mums will agree can send them over the edge.

"It's important to make changes so that you enjoy time with your son - and that he learns to do things on his own.

"Step into his trainers for a moment and understand that the reason he wants to spend time with you is that he loves you. Look at him and see a child who wants attention from his mum - not one trying to make your life difficult.

"If you feel under pressure, neither of you will have fun. Draw up a schedule where your son spends time on his own and then has some time with you. Keep his time alone short to begin with - 10 minutes - and then gradually make it longer.

"If he's not sure what he wants to do, give him three options and let him choose one of them. He's much more likely to enjoy time on his own if he's been involved in the decision-making process.

"Once that's done, it's time for special mum and son time. Make a list of things you both want to do together and make them happen.

"Go for connection, not perfection, and have fun. These times are precious - and you're creating memories that will last forever."

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