Parenting Advice: Setting Healthy Online Boundaries This Summer Holiday  

With the school Summer holidays upon us, many parents will be worrying about the amount of time their children spend online and how they’re going to manage this during the holiday period. Here, mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at healthy digital boundaries and how technology increases learning opportunities, builds digital skills and aids communication and connection amongst children, all positives that can boost children’s’ development and self-esteem.

Take the time to find out what your children are doing online and try to get inside their heads. Don’t be a dinosaur about technology and virtual spaces, try to imagine going through the pandemic without being able to go online, how horrible would that have been for all?  First thing to remember is that for the most part kids do not have problems with online usage. Since its opening the specialised NHS gaming disorders service has had 750 referrals out of the 17.3 million children and young people in the UK, which gives the perspective on the level of clinical need, small and highly specialised.

Mental health expert Noel McDermott comments: “For the most part the problems we see are not clinical problems that need treatment. It’s an important point because there are rehab etc providers promoting online gaming addiction and treatment for it which is for the most part not needed. It preys upon parents fears and creates a sense of crisis. So, don’t panic, as a parent you have the skills to modify your kids’ behaviours by a few simple steps:

  • create a realistic time frame (change takes time because the brain needs repetition to create new neural connections)
  • use a support network and involve the parents of your kids’ friends to create a ‘shared gym sheet’ so that all the kids in the friendship network get the same messages. 
  • understand how the online usage works for your kid positively and look to replace that with healthier options rather than just saying no! 
  • understand there are genuine benefits to online usage that need to be preserved. 
  • keep in mind your kid uses these spaces in a radically different way to you, they were born into the online world and navigate it as a natural part of their experience”.

What are the benefits for your kids online? 

  • Social connections – most kids use online spaces with kids they already know, friends from school etc. Online activities help strengthen the bonds between them.  
  • School, work, and all services are online and require natural skills in these spaces, so children who flow online have these skills. 
  • Diversity in connections. Psychologically healthy people have diverse connections in their social groups due to this diversity. The online world helps your kids develop this diversity of connection and outlook. 
  • Healthy brain development, and online activities, particularly gaming, promote white brain matter groups. 
  • Many online games promote skills meds for school and work, memory growth, complex motor skill activation, multi-tasking, organising, maths, reading etc. 

Striking a healthy balance

Look to achieve a healthy balance between online time and IRL (in real life). Don’t underestimate ‘family time’; take time in the day to engage directly with your children where possible. This can be as simple as family mealtimes, making more time for conversation, exercising together, taking the kids for a run at lunchtime or doing an online exercise class together; getting active for 20 minutes a day regulates your mood and gets the blood flowing. Don’t forget the importance of ‘park time’. It helps our psychological and physiological health. A walk in nature, playtime in the garden, and climbing trees in your local park all activate biophilia, an inbuilt capacity we have to relate to and take comfort from other forms of natural life. Biophilic activities reduce stress responses and create a sense of connectedness and well-being, which is profoundly healthy for us.

Negatives of online time:

  • It’s just too much fun and distracts from other activities.
  • It’s too easy to isolate away if there is a problem and hide it.
  • Cyberbullying. 
  • Predators in the space. 
  • Unhealthy online spaces promote poor body image issues.

If you’re concerned about how much time your child spends online, mental health expert Noel McDermott recommends:

“Have a range of activities planned that produce DOSE hormones (D = dopamine; O = oxytocin; S = serotonin; E = endorphins) to counteract the fun stuff online. Ensure open communication with your kids, have check-in time, and model emotional sharing and vulnerability. Recruit your parents’ network to monitor the grapevine … kids tell other kids their problems, who’ll tell their parents. Play with your kids to learn who they are playing with and to form a relationship around the gaming so they can chat with you about it. This gives you the normal ‘baseline’ of chatter, and you’ll spot changes if things get dark. Talk openly about dangerous people and grooming strategies so they are forewarned and armed. Most though, kids are socialising with other kids they know online, which are very isolated problems”. 

If you are worried, chat with your GP, the school or other parents to get ideas. Most kids with online use problems express psychological distress because of depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, for example. Identifying the underlying issue is the key to getting appropriate treatment.

Noel McDermott is a mental health expert with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home.