Insights from Psychologist on Managing Children’s Usage of Technology

Ann Bridgewater is a clinical psychologist for more than 15 years. Having served in the Hong Kong community with focus on special needs children, she once worked as an occupational therapist in a Hong Kong’s hospital. Together with Vernee Ho, they founded Playto, educational tools company that incorporate games in teaching children on life skills like concentration, organization and mindfulness.

“We focus on teaching children how to boost their attention span as we believe that attention is the first step in learning.”

Ann Bridgewater, Founder, Playto

Hi Ann, you have been practising child psychology for more than 15 years. Could you please share with us what you have observed over the years in children and technology? Does technology help in learning?

I think children love technology and find it very engaging and entertaining as they are digital natives. They grow up by having mobile devices in their day-to-day life. Children are very comfortable with it as they grow up in the era of technology. Technology devices are wonderful tools to enhance learning. Like all things we offer to our children, it just needs to be managed with care.


When you said managed with care, does technology impact the cognitive development of a child, and in particular ability to concentrate?

Technology impacts a child’s ability to concentrate when they are working on several things at a time, have several screens open or conversations ongoing. It is the multitasking that affects their concentration, not technology per se.


Let’s tweak the question for a bit for our next question. Does technology impact a child’s behavior? There are a lot of talks about children becoming more aggressive because of their massive usage and easy access to technology devices like phones, iPads, etc. What is your view on this?

Research shown that it is not necessarily true. Children being children, they learn behaviour from their parents. If parents find out that their child are getting more aggressive, parents may need to reflect upon their own behaviors on why that happen.


While children are very comfortable of using mobile devices in their day-to-day life, we often hear from parents that they struggle with controlling the child’s usage of technology. What are the common challenges faced by parents in raising children in a digital age?

I think parents have been a bit caught off guard by how quickly and easily their children adapt to using technology. Because it is so new, parents are a bit at a loss as to how to manage it. They find it hard to implement the rules and boundaries but it is actually like anything else we present to our children. We need to be prepared to discuss the rules and implement them.


Could you elaborate more on the rules and how does that help in setting the boundaries for a child’s usage of technology?

Before handing over a device to children, parents need to set agreeable contract for both parties (parents and child) that covers conditions such as the amount of screen time, when and when they are allowed to use, etc. Spend time sitting down with one another and manage his/her expectation that the rules are agreed upon both parties. If the rules are violated, parents will have a chat with the child moving forward.

Check out this contract written by a mom who gave an iPhone for her 13 years old. Wondering what was the outcome of this contract, the mom wrote a post on implementing the contract two years later.


What if parents have already given out the device without the contract? What else could be done?

They need to try and introduce the rules of the contract as soon as possible. It is more difficult but not impossible to introduce it after the child has already been given the device. They will not like it but there is also a lot in life they may not like but need to learn to accept.


The contract was really well-written! This contract was written for a 13 years old. However we also know that some parents give iPads to their child as young as 4 years old. This leads to our next question. What is the most suitable age to give a technology device like a smartphone or an iPad to a child?

Parents need to be aware of the purpose of giving a device to their child. Children can have their own smartphones if they need it to communicate with their parents about their whereabouts or safety, i.e. when they need to travel to from activities on their own taking public transportation. On the other hand, it is advisable not to give them a device just because their child as for it because his/her friends have one.

Talking about iPads, preschoolers should have very limited access and this can gradually increase as children enter primary school.


Could you please share with us more on the reason behind limiting access to technology for preschoolers?

What research has shown though is that younger children or preschoolers learn language better from real life interactions than from screens. Babies of one to two years old learn much better from human interaction particularly from intonation, body language and facial expressions.

Hence it is good to manage the screen time for babies and slowly incorporating technology in daily life as they grow up.


And how about for young children of 6-7 years old? Does this apply to them as well?

If you look around children in the surrounding, children of 6-7 years old are generally more exposed to technology. They’ve learned how to navigate around technology and not to mention, schools are incorporating technology in their classrooms. Homework is saved on Google. They learn how to use Google drive, how to store and share documents and more.


We are sure that parents will have question marks if technology kills creativity especially when they are using it in school. What’s your view on this?

Technology is a tool for children to express their creativity. Technology does not kill creativity if it is being used appropriately. There are so many creative avenues possible via technology. Children can learn to code and to create games, videos, presentations or artwork using tech.

Just like any other activities, children need to balance the amount of time spent on tech and activities such as drawing, playing, painting, etc.


We have talked about different topics about managing technology usage of children. A last question from us, if you could provide one tip to parents about technology and their child, what would it be?

For parents of younger children, it would be to have a strictly enforced contract in place before you hand over their first device to them. For preteens and teens, the rule should definitely be no phones or computers in the bedroom at night. They need their sleep.

If you are thinking about how to get children to understand the reasoning behind not leaving phones or computers in bedroom at night, try question them “how many times have the phone woke you up at night?” Once they understand that phones are “culprit” of disturbing their sleep cycle, they will eventually agree with you that phones should be kept away from their bedrooms.

Parents will need to customize their “strategies” when it comes to managing technology usage among their children by looking at their age, setting purpose of having a smartphone, and more. Hope this interview gives a better insight to parents on how to manage their child’s usage of technology.

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