Anita Cleare is a parenting expert and founder of the Positive Parenting Project, a social enterprise that helps parents cut through the fads and fashions of parenting advice and focus on simple, evidence-based approaches. With a background in developmental psychology, she supports parents in the workplace, schools and children’s centers, helping them understand what makes kids tick.
She’s also the author of The Working Parent’s Survival Guide, which covers all of the sticky challenges in a working parent’s day—things like getting everyone out of the house on time in the morning, managing difficult behavior when you’re tired and controlling tech time. We sat down with Anita to learn more about how parents can support their children’s well-being—both online and in real life.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you first began in this industry? Does parenting look the same today as it did when you first started?
One of the biggest changes has been the advancement in technology and the inroads that personal devices have made into family life. That’s certainly something that parents are concerned about because children are interacting with tech at a much younger age. Trying to find balance—it’s something that comes up repeatedly as a challenge for modern parents.
What has changed since COVID-19?
Obviously, the pandemic had a huge impact on families and parenting. The impact on children has been absolutely immense. They have missed out on important rites of passage that might have been significant to them. We know that their educational progress and attainment have been impacted. Young children have not had as many opportunities for social play. So we can see the potential ramifications of that in their personal and social-emotional development.
There has been a lot of research around how lockdowns have impacted speech, language and mental health. We’ve seen huge rises in mental and emotional health disorders in children and young people.
How has COVID-19 changed screen time?
A lot of parents are worried and feeling guilty. Clearly, working parents have had to manage working at home, supervising remote schooling—and they were not able to rely on friends and family and support networks, and there were no places to go to entertain their children. So screen time has been huge in children’s lives and in family life during the pandemic.
There’s likely to be a lot of conversations about resetting the boundaries. How do we reset the boundaries now that we’ve allowed them to have unrestricted access to technology? How do we go about reintroducing some balance?
But equally, some of the benefits of technology have come to the forefront. Using technology has helped to facilitate family life: with remote work, parents don’t have a long commute and can be at home. It’s helping families keep in touch with each other, and helping children access online learning. So, it will be interesting to see where we go—but at the moment, what I detect is a lot of guilt.
Where do you think that screen time guilt comes from?
I think parents intuitively know that being sedentary and looking at one place for a long time is not good for children—and they’re not wrong in that. The message that we must not allow technology to completely take over our lives or children’s lives has been heard. But, there is a danger that technology also gets demonized completely.
Children today are having a completely different experience of technology than parents did. The advancements in technology have been so rapid that we can’t fall back on our own childhood for rules or guidance on the best way to manage tech because it simply wasn’t there on the same level. But it is in our family’s lives now. There is the worry of it being unfamiliar territory: not understanding what children are doing online, being concerned about children’s safety. And it all gets jumbled up together. Parents pick up on that—and that sense that tech is the baddie.
When we think of parenting in the digital age, what are the biggest concerns parents should be aware of?
It’s important that we don’t allow technology to expand to fill all the spaces in children’s lives because those spaces are developmentally very important. That’s when they often have their creative moments.
What can parents do to help kids thrive when they do go online?
The online world is an amazing source of support, particularly for teenagers who are looking for like-minded individuals. And, they can find so much information there. But it’s also potentially a source of harm in the same way that the playground is a source of both support and harm. You will find great friends, but you’ll also find bullies.
There’s danger with the online world because there’s no teacher supervising. Parents need to talk to their children about online behaviors, their own, and other people’s. Be active. Don’t just leave them to it, but really talk about the interactions they’re having, how those interactions make them feel, why somebody might say or do something online—encourage some critical thinking skills.
It’s about being alongside them online, especially at the beginning, so that we can help frame some of their thinking about what’s going on. And remember those critical thinking skills: just because somebody says something doesn’t make it true. What makes them resilient in the digital world is what makes them resilient in the real world.
What advice would you give to parents with younger children?
Prioritize face-to-face, real-world physical social play as much as possible because that’s what really young children need. It’s true that there are benefits to socializing online. However, that doesn’t make it equivalent to socializing face-to-face, because there are things that happen face-to-face that are developmentally richer.
Young children might learn the alphabet, colors or shapes from an app or a TV program, but if they learn them from another person, it’s a more developmentally rich experience. There are definitely some benefits for parental sanity in entertaining a child with a screen and having quiet for half an hour so that a parent can have a shower, make dinner—those kinds of things. There’s nothing wrong with needing a little bit of time when children are watching something. Just be careful it doesn’t expand to fill up too much time and don’t think that’s where they’re going to learn everything.
With younger children, they need us to protect them and keep them safe. It’s important to be mindful about what they see, and how long they’re viewing for as they get older. Just like all areas of children’s lives, it’s a slow process of handing over power and decision-making to them in a managed way.
What misconceptions do parents have about screen time?
Sometimes guilt can lead parents to feel like they’ve already blown it. They’ve already let their children have too much screen time, so there’s no point in trying anymore. I would encourage parents not to get into that type of thinking. You can always reset boundaries and you can always decide that you’re going to do something different with children. And, it’s okay for them to have some screen time. It’s not the worst thing that you could be doing for them. The aim for balance is continual. It takes a little bit of energy and effort. And some days, if you’re not up for it, you just pick yourself up the next day, get back on and try again.
What does the current research tell us about screen time?
There is very little consensus among experts about screen time and how much is suitable for children. The problem is that the pace of technological change has been so rapid that research can’t really keep up.
There are a lot of disputes, and there is a lot of over-interpretation of small-scale studies that then have big headlines about how social media is like crack cocaine for teenagers. It’s very easy to over-dramatize some of those things. The worry that technology is somehow bad for children’s brains is one that parents often fall prey to.
But actually, the biggest concern should always be what children are not doing because they’re using technology instead. If technology is squeezing out things that we know are good for kids—like running around and real-world play—that’s something that needs to be addressed. We need to look at children’s healthy lifestyles in general—and that involves food, exercise and looking at the whole package. If children are not sleeping because they’re on technology at night, that’s going to have an impact on their mental health, but that isn’t necessarily the technology. It’s important that we don’t allow technology to expand to fill all the spaces in children’s lives because those spaces are developmentally very important. Real-world play is where they build their brains and have their investigative and creative moments.
How can parents navigate the screen time headlines they’re seeing?
It’s always worth looking at how many people were involved in this study. They can take a critical eye to the questions that were being asked in a study—but also just sense check some of the claims: technology isn’t the same as crack cocaine—of course it isn’t, you know that.
It’s also helpful to compare technology to real-world things that we do understand. If your child is asking for extra screen time, do the ice cream test: if they’ve already had ice cream and they’re asking you for another ice cream, would you give them another one?
What are some of the positive ways you’ve seen kids using technology?
When children use tech creatively, whether that’s designing something, making a film, creating music—whatever their passion is—it can be really supportive.
The things that you can create with technology are fantastic. To be able to make a stop animation or a real film, to create an online or digital creation—these are wonderfully inspiring and creative things that they can do. And the potential is there to stretch them in lots of different directions.
What advice would you give to kids who are going online?
The best and shortest piece of advice is this: if you wouldn’t wear it on a T-shirt, don’t write it online. Whatever you write, you have to be prepared for your grandmother and the whole world to see. So if you wouldn’t walk down the street with it printed on a T-shirt, don’t put it online.
If you’d like more positive parenting insights from Anita, check out her book The Working Parent’s Survival Guide!