Put down the devices and listen to your kids

by Andrew Becroft / 01 April, 2018

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft: "Nothing beats meaningful communication with your kids". Photo / OCC

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Before FaceTime, there was face to face time – and there is no substitute for it, writes Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft.

It has been fascinating over recent days to read the articles about how technology has changed children’s lives. I had this fact graphically illustrated to me early in the New Year during the wild weather which affected much of the North Island. The holiday house where we were staying lost electricity for 36 hours. Quickly, our digital devices were drained of their power.

I am sure that many families have faced this “horror” scenario at one point or another. Teenagers (and certain adults too, I must confess) with twitching trigger fingers, were unable to check the fruit of their online interactions. Without the support of a “like” button or a photo filter, some of us went into digital withdrawal. Reluctantly, and despite considerable moaning, we actually had to start talking to each other. But it was good for us as a family. Quaintly, we played cards by candlelight, heated hot water on a billy and cooked toast on the fire (in summer!).

I started thinking about how dominant social media and other technology have become in our lives. And how we need to guarantee a little bit of human face-to-face time with our kids every day. Certainly, online platforms are very effective ways of staying in touch and up to date. And technology, in a broader sense, has many uses for school, learning and leisure. Much of it is positive and beneficial. But is it really the worst thing in the world to be cut off from the internet for a few days and to trade screen time for talking face to face? Especially as research shows that too much screen time can have a negative effect on wellbeing, particularly for vulnerable developing brains. 

I recently visited the Community of Learning in Kawerau and spoke with a group of young leaders. They shared the things they worry most about, and suicide and cyber-bullying were high on the list. School bullying has existed ever since schools were created, but social media now magnifies the harm hugely as it can reach children anywhere and instantly, sometimes with disastrous results. The Bullying-Free NZ Network has some excellent resources to assist students, parents and teachers to take a stand on bullying, in all forms.

How can we protect kids from online porn?

Another prevalent online hazard is pornography. In our engagement with children and young people across New Zealand, we increasingly hear their concerns about the widely available access to pornography and its effects.

Thanks to the internet, today’s teenagers are experts before their time about superficial and mechanical sex, but complete amateurs in the art of developing meaningful loving relationships. Online pornography fuels this mismatch, and it is not an easy subject to talk about. It has great potential to harm both teenage boys, as significant consumers of pornography, but also teenage girls who equally absorb misleading messages about what is expected in intimate relationships.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification has recently done some excellent work on the issue of viewing sexual violence and the effect it can have. The Ministry for Women and Netsafe have also looked at young New Zealanders’ experience of digital harm, in particular how they interact online, and how their online lives impact their identities. One finding that stood out was that young people are most fearful of personal attacks from people they know. But rather than wanting adults to intervene, they want to have the tools and knowledge to be able to help themselves, and to help each other.

To my mind, all of this reinforces that children and young people need guidance on how to distinguish between what is “real” and what is unhelpful, addictive and misleading online.

What do kids want? More talk

At my Office, we regularly ask children and young people in schools and community groups throughout New Zealand about issues that are important to them. We do this as part of my statutory role as Children’s Commissioner, but also because it is the right of every child to have a voice, and we strongly believe that decisions affecting children and young people should always be informed by their views.

Honest conversations with parents are a vital reality check to some of what they are exposed to elsewhere. Photo / Getty Images

In one survey, in the run-up to the general election, we asked children who they most want to talk to about important issues. Overwhelmingly, their responses showed that they want their parents to talk more with them in everyday life.

Most parents probably think “yeah right” – how do I communicate with the back of a screen about such important issues? Do not be put off. You may be surprised at the voice that responds from behind that screen. The starting point is just taking the time to find out the particular issues that are important to them. And to grab that moment, however inconvenient, when our children choose to talk to us.

In the same survey, children told us that they also care about education, environment and poverty, followed closely by housing availability.  In our work, we see that children think about the world around them all the time and should not be underestimated. They absorb information from their peers, Facebook and YouTube. Honest conversations with parents are a vital reality check to some of what they are exposed to elsewhere. In other work, we discovered that a number of young people were worried about how Donald Trump’s actions would affect New Zealand, and an alarming number of them thought he was our president!

So, parents have a critical role to play in helping children and young people separate fact from social media and fake news. We can talk to them about how to interpret what they hear online and how to form their own opinions. Critical thinking, that old-fashioned skill, is just as important as it ever was.

Here in Wellington, we see that the public sector is seeking to use technology to engage more with New Zealanders. But when we asked children how they want to communicate on important issues, their preference was to do it in person. Surprising? Maybe. But before we get too carried away with technology options for engaging with children, we should remember that none provide an effective substitute for face-to-face communication.

No one is suggesting that we turn the clock back. But we do need to balance the ever-increasing possibilities offered by developing technology with real-world skills such as socialisation, honest verbal communication and the ability to form relationships.

As I discovered, putting down the devices from time to time can do wonders for families. Allow the connections and conversations to be driven by what your children want to talk about. Ask questions and you might be surprised at the answers. Do not be disheartened if you are rebuffed. Keep trying. The result will be worth it. Nothing beats ongoing, meaningful communication with your kids.

As is sometimes said, love is a four-letter-word, spelt T-I-M-E – take the time to talk to your children about their worries, their highlights, their thoughts, and to share yours.


Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft represents the 1.1 million children and young people in Aotearoa New Zealand under the age of 18, who make up 23% of the total population. He advocates for their interests, ensures their rights are upheld, and helps them have a say on issues that affect them. More information: www.occ.org.nz.


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