Log off, start living: How to get kids off their tech dependence

Children use computers frequently nowadays and will often sacrifice time outdoors to curl up with their tablet

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

When I was a little girl, the closest I got to a computer was an Atari games console that was passed down through the family.

I had as much interest in that machine as I did my math homework and would always choose playing hide and seek on the street over attacking virtual monsters.

It may have only been 30 years since I was hiding up trees but so much has changed.

Children use computers frequently nowadays and will often sacrifice time outdoors to curl up with their tablet.

But it’s something one company is urging parents to be wary of.

Australian food and drink firm Golden Circle has launched a campaign called “Sun Hour,” aimed at encouraging children to switch off their tech and get outside.

With figures showing that 60 per cent of families have five or more devices constantly connected to the internet with Australian children aged 5-17 spending three times longer on screens compared to physical activity, the company is donating bikes to charity in return for families pledging an hour outdoors.

Golden Circle say that spending time outdoors used to be integral to life in Australia and it’s slowly being forgotten.

The same could be said about the UAE. And with winter climates perfect for playing outside we need to do more to encourage our children to get outdoors exploring, says businesswoman Zabeen Bint Ahmed.

As the owner of www.sevia.ae, which describes itself as an “enterprise and venture innovation advisory,” former management consultant Zabeen works in schools to boost creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and create a culture of innovation.

And she says that while most of the children she meets are whiz kids on computers, many of them lack basic skills.

“Schools nowadays are inspected and judged by how many smart boards and IT labs they have. Kids are able to utilize these technologies but they don’t know how to apply them to real world problems,” she explains.

“They can play games on the iPad but it’s not strengthening their cognitive skills or ability to see patterns. There is not only correlation but causation that screen time causes ADD, poor focus, inability to retain information, loss of memory in young children and behavioral issues. I’ve done a lot of teaching and tutoring kids for experience and found some kids can’t even hold a pen or write - everything is typed.”

And it’s not only a child’s mental capacity that is affected by sitting indoors with their computers. The UAE has a large childhood obesity problem and spending time idle on the computer only increases the risk of a child gaining weight.

Zabeen, who has a 17-month-old son, spent most of her youth outdoors and wants the same for her boy.

She adds: “For several reasons, just being out in the sun is beneficial. Obviously staying fit but getting Vitamin D and what it does to boost your mood plays a huge role in counteracting whatever downer or anxiety you would be experiencing from sitting in front of a laptop all day. Being outside and exposing children to the environment boosts the immune system ... Because we have built lives inside in sterile environment on phones and laptops instead of talking to people we are sat next to, it reduces risk of heart disease and diabetes.

“Playing outside with other children also builds a sense of community, they play sports and learn about sportsmanship – there are so many benefits.”

As an artist and photographer and co-founder of Dubai’s Courtyard Playhouse, Tiffany Schultz has the imagination to entertain her son for hours. Yet even she struggles to prize her son’s tablet away once he gets absorbed.

She says: “My well-behaved, polite three your old turns into a monster when he’s playing on his precious iPad. He’s literally like Bilbo Baggins with the ring - tantrums, tears and violence ensues when I try to pry it from his hands. It’s in the cupboard and has been there for a few months and he’s back to his normal lovely self now.”

Setting rules is beneficial, explains Tiffany. She adds: “I haul it out on weekend mornings when he wakes up too early for me to play with him but only educational games which I’ve installed are allowed and the Internet is deactivated. I find YouTube is the main culprit but clear rules help. He’d far rather go to the beach or to the park but only if he hasn’t been sucked in and zombified. He doesn’t even acknowledge my existence if he’s on it.”

From camping in the desert to parks and beaches, there are open spaces for children in the UAE to play. And showing them there is more fun to be had when the computer is off is key, explains Dubai mum Jasmin Padda, who also only allows her children access to such technology at restricted times at the weekend.

She says: “There is plenty for them to do; ride bikes, color, draw, read, do Lego. Kids love spending time with their parents and if you engage with your children in these activities, chances are they won’t ask for the iPad.”

Leading by example is also important, says fellow Dubai mum Najmul Nisa, who still hasn’t introduced her children to technology.

She says: “There’s no iPads or ‘use mummy’s phone’ for distractions. We have a TV and they can watch that as and when needed but it is infrequent. From a young age, I encouraged movement and imagination. Also I think parents need to be role models. It’s time for the adult to put the phone or iPad away and the kids will probably follow. Just be mindful of your tech use.”