Technology anxiety is real amongst children and young people who face returning to the classroom after time spent in home learning during the lockdowns.

During this time, most children have been learning online or through an increased amount of screen time rather than face-to-face. For children with anxiety or worries about the problems in the world, this has often been less stressful than engaging in activities in the real world.

But what about when they return to face-to-face learning? And what is technology anxiety, anyway?

Fear of being separated from technology

Technology anxiety or digital anxiety can occur in a couple of different ways. It can be caused by separation from a digital device, or it can be caused by fear of technology.

In kids with technology anxiety, it occurs when they are separated from a favourite device.

Just as a stuffed toy or blanket might provide a sense of comfort and security for young children, digital devices can help an older child or young person feel secure.

But at what cost?

The negative effects of technology on mental health

According to the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, attachment to technology can lead to low levels of self-motivation, emotional intelligence, and empathy among young people. It is also a factor in ADHD, depression, and the inability to form stable friendships.

Mental health concerns in the digital age have only increased during a pandemic when children are spending far more time in front of screens than they have in the past, and hospitals in Canada have reported a 100% increase in mental health admissions for young people as a direct result of the pandemic.

Signs of technology addiction

Technology anxiety is often related to technology addiction and parents and carers can often spot the signs when they know what to look for:

· A lack of interest in other activities, even things the child used to enjoy in the past

· A single-minded focus that claims all of their attention when they are using their devices

· Tantrums, aggression, meltdowns or bad behaviour when unable to access their devices

· Constant discussion of screen time and things they have seen or done online

· Withdrawal symptoms including distress or anxiety that are relieved once they can again access their devices

Screen time and anxiety: Returning to the classroom may be a trigger

As lockdowns in some parts of the world begin to lift, children are facing anxiety over returning to the classroom and leaving behind the perceived safety of home and favourite devices.

So what can parents do to help their kids manage their technology-related anxiety during these transition times?

How to help reduce anxiety and screen time?

It’s important to note that changes you make need to be gradual rather than all at once. Gradual changes will help kids to adjust over time rather than sudden changes which may increase anxiety. Check out these tips for managing anxiety and reducing screen time.

1. Set boundaries

If you haven’t put boundaries in place, it’s a good time to set some. They could include daily screen time limits or no-go zones (such as the bedroom or bathroom) with digital devices.

2. Create a list of priorities

Make a hierarchy of priorities when it comes to screen time. These are things that must be done before screen time happens, such as chores or music practice.

3. Segment screen time into priorities

Set a limit on individual screen time in favour of communal screen time where other members of the family are interacting. Communal screen time takes priority over individual screen time.

4. Adjust the content rather than restricting usage

Rather than placing strict time limits on screen use, you can allow educational content to take priority over games or entertainment.

5. Replace screen time with together time

Children and even teens crave connection and togetherness, even if they won’t admit it. Find some fun things to do with your kids. Get outdoors and plant a garden together. Go for a walk or a swim or a visit to a park. Volunteer at a charity or get involved in a sport you’ve always wanted to try.

Kids will remember the meaningful things you did together, not the hours they spent on their screens, so don’t be afraid to persist if they grumble at first. Whatever you do, stick at it until it becomes a regular part of your routine and in time, kids won’t even notice that it has taken the place of time they used to spend on their devices.

6. Be ready to listen & quick to offer encouragement

Kids will often use screen time as an escape from the real world and also as a way to validate their self-worth. Games with awards and trophies are popular, as are endless selfies and “likes” on social channels. The reward centre of the brain is gratified by these things, but when they don’t work out, it can be devastating.

A listening ear and encouragement from someone in the real world are so important for grounding and validation. Be ready to listen without judgment and quick to offer encouragement and praise for jobs well done.

7. Model good habits yourself

Kids see what we do and follow our example. If you want your kids to spend time getting outside or getting fit, lead the way. If you want to spend more time interacting as a family at dinner time, turn off the TV or put your phone aside and ask everyone else to do the same. They are small things, but by showing a good example, you can help your kids to see the beneficial alternatives to screen time.

Small changes make a big difference for kids with technology anxiety

It’s the small things that make the biggest difference. By making small changes over time, you’ll help your kids to become less dependent on technology and more resilient in a world that demands we pay a lot of attention to technology.

Schools are going in and out of closure for deep cleaning like a yo-yo on red cordial at a kids birthday party. Kids in the city AND NOW our rural areas are facing the anxiety of COVID being in their suburbs and country towns. I’ve been supporting my local OT clients throughout the long lockdowns, but short ones I believe are even harder.
Transition to school, snap closures announced in the evening for the next day, and announcements for reopening at 9pm (yep, our house last night).
Let’s get our kids through the next few weeks til school holidays as calmly as possible. (and it’s a live guide, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know).
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