Skillful Parenting: Raising Healthier Children in the Digital Age

Raising children has never been easy by any stretch of the imagination. But parenting in the digital age presents a unique set of challenges unknown to earlier generations, making it all the more important for today’s mothers and fathers to master the high-impact parenting skills required for the digital age


What’s at stake?

The current generation of children is growing up at a time of significant health challenges and worrying trends:
  • Childhood overweight and obesity rates have reached epidemic levels.
  • Diseases associated with poor nutrition habits, obesity and sedentary lifestyles — hypertension, fatty liver disease and others — are being diagnosed at earlier ages than ever.  
  • For decades, type 1 diabetes has been associated with children, while type 2 diabetes would typically be diagnosed in middle-aged and elderly patients with unhealthy lifestyle habits. That’s no longer the case. In the span of just 10 to 15 years, doctors have seen a significant increase in children diagnosed with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol/triglyceride levels. 
  • Childhood depression has become much more prevalent in the digital age, with a child’s time spent on social media now an important risk factor for depression.   

It’s not a coincidence that these health trends have worsened as so-called “screen time” — the amount of time a child spends watching TV and uses screen-based devices including smartphones, tablets and computers for activities such as social media, texting, playing video games, watching videos and surfing the internet — has grown significantly. 
 

Expanding screen times

One study shows children’s screen time has doubled in just one generation — children aged 5 to 16 now average nearly 7 hours of screen time per day. Less than 25 years ago, the average was half that, or 3.5 hours. 

Those additional hours of screen time have come at the expense of healthier childhood activities, as children now devote less time to “free play” and other physical and sporting activities, spend less time outdoors and frequent suffer from a lack of sleep. 


Parenting skills to master

Raising physically and emotionally healthy children will put a number of valuable parenting skills to the test.
 

1. Modelling

Children are hard-wired to learn and develop by copying the behaviors they see. That’s especially evident during the pre-school years, when parents have the greatest presence in a child’s day-to-day life. The behavior you model in front of your pre-schooler makes a lasting impression, good or otherwise, for years to come across all aspects of your child’s life — nutrition habits, smoking, physical activity, use of digital media and weight control, to name a few. 

Modelling perfect behavior 100% of the time isn’t realistic, and kids don’t expect perfection from their parents. But as they develop, children will begin to draw a connection between your efforts and the outcomes they produce. Children also develop the ability to spot inconsistencies, so modelling an undesirable behavior while telling your child not to imitate you — “do as I say, not as I do” — only serves to undermine the rest of your modelling efforts. 
 

2. Engaging

Engaging with your child — establishing a high level of involvement in your child’s life — is a critical element of effective parenting. Engaging with your child requires devoting time for them, communicating with them, taking part in activities together and explaining the reasoning behind the expectations and rules you establish. It’s natural for parents to want to be liked by their children, but engaging with your children isn’t the same as befriending them, and it’s important to be self-aware about maintaining your authority.
 

3. Routine-building

A large body of behavioral research shows that building routines and schedules into a child’s life contributes to happier, healthier, more successful lives. Healthy routines include breakfast every morning, established meal times, enforced bed times, and scheduling time for creative pursuits, outdoors time and physical activities. As much as they might complain about a particular rule or being told what to do, children are more likely to thrive when their lives have structure and routine. 
 

4. Setting limits

If you want your children to develop self-control and be well behaved, you are going to have to develop strong limit-setting skills. Setting limits spans establishing rules and guidelines for behavior, and providing situational feedback when your child misbehaves. 

In the digital age, parents are advised to set daily screen-time limits for their kids and make specific areas at home digital-free zones. Leading pediatric organizations recommend a two-hour daily limit for children aged two and older, while children younger than two should not be allowed to watch TV or use any screen-based devices.  

Establishing digital-free zones at home typically translates to keeping televisions and screen devices out of children’s bedrooms, designating mealtimes as digital-free, and placing age-based limitations on when a child can receive a first mobile phone as well as who is responsible for paying for it.  
 

Free play in the digital age

One harmful consequence of too much screen time is the lack of time left for activities such as free play that contribute to a child’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Free play is particularly crucial during early childhood, from infancy to around age seven. The concept involves children taking the lead in choosing the kind of play activity they want, how they want to play and when they are ready to stop. It could be anything from playing with dolls with their friends, dressing up in their parents’ clothes, role playing or building a fort in the front yard. 

These kinds of unstructured activities help a child develop a sense of his or her self-worth, discover new interests, learn to share, to negotiate and to resolve conflict — skills every child needs to become independent and will use throughout adult life.
 

The challenge for parents 

While the technology has changed, raising healthy children has always challenged parents to strike the right balance between exercising authority and encouraging responsibility and self-discovery. That is still the case even in the digital age. And parents who succeed at finding that proper balance will discover the rewards to be as satisfying as ever.
 
By the Children’s Center, Bumrungrad International Hospital

Children’s (Pediatrics) Center:
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Posted by Bumrungrad International

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