Monday, March 10, 2014

Google glass, household media plans, and competing with the screens

I empathize with parents today. Technology is omnipresent, appealing, and addictive. When challenged to get their children outside more, parents have asked me "sure, but how can I compete with the screens?".

There isn't an easy answer to this. To try to provide some answers, or at least generate discussion, my colleague and I Allana LeBlanc wrote an article for the Ottawa Parenting Times about healthy active living in a modern world. What follows here is an elaboration on the idea of competing with the screens.

I don't think that technology is going anywhere, anytime soon - and nor do I think it should. While screen-based technology has the potential to be harmful, especially to children, I also think that our technology is allowing us to communicate and interact as never before. That being said, the researcher in me is terrified of Google Glass. Considering how harmful we know screens are to children's health, if the idea of walking around with a screen 24/7 doesn't scare you, it sh
ould. (Can I say that on Blogger!?)

As with anything, it's the role of parents to teach their children moderation with screen-based media. Children today do spend too much time in front of screens, and credible organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, are recognizing this. When I was a child, I loved playing video games - still do, in fact. But screen time was something that was allowed on a rainy day or when there otherwise weren't opportunities for active play (such as long car rides). Of course, one size does not fit all, and parents should be encouraged to develop their own strategies using the evidence and guidelines, such as those from the AAP, to help them.

Regardless of the strategies that parents want to employ to reduce their kids' screen time, I think an integral part of any approach is to develop a household media plan. Parents will have different household rules regarding media and I think that's a good thing - it needs to be tailored to what you and your children want if it's to be sustainable while still being enjoyable. There is no one best strategy, or at least we haven't found it yet, but there are some general ideas that may help parents and families guide the development of their household media plan:

1) As far as screens go, less is better.

2) Rules around the timing of media use may be helpful, such as: no texting at the table, no phones in the bedroom overnight, and no television after 9:00. Again, these types of guides should be personalized to suit the needs of the family and the age of the child.

3) Using screen-based media after school is known to affect health. For instance, every 60 minutes that a 11-14 year old boy spends sedentary after 3:00pm is associated with 1.4 kg/m higher BMI and a 3.4 cm higher waist circumference (read the article here). I think that we could have a major impact on the health of children if every child was encouraged to play outdoors after school instead of using screen-based media. This is a critical area where parents can have a profound impact on the health of their children.

 CBC news' Pauline Dakin recently did a story on the effect of social media on teens. Social media is re-defining how children communicate with each other and with the world, and is largely becoming a new way of life. Now I wouldn't suggest that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, but I do think that maintaining open lines of communication with children about screen-based media and social media is a good thing. Adults may be wise to educate themselves as to the purpose and uses of different social media apps, both to have intelligent conversations with their children when making household media plans, as well as to protect their children too. I'll spare you the Sun Tzu quotes, but I think a little "know thine enemy" may be in order.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Are today's playgrounds too safe?

I completed a survey today by Dr. Mariana Brussoni and Susan Herrington from the University of British Columbia, entitled: Are Today's Playgrounds too Safe? I would encourage you to respond to the survey here. It takes under 5 minutes to complete and it's actually quite fun to reminisce. Please note that I'm not involved with this project in any way and my opinions here may not be reflective of the opinions of the researchers above.

I want to comment on the notion of playground safety just briefly. I'll disclose my bias here - the playgrounds that I typically see in Ottawa do not appear to be any more, or less, safe than the ones I played on. Structurally or physically speaking they quite resemble the play structures that I played on a child. Slides, ladders, ropes, sand, etc. Maybe this isn't true for some (or most) playgrounds, but I'll be sure to keep a lookout around my neighborhood for anything that doesn't look 'normal' to me.

While I don't believe the playgrounds have changed too much (ok maybe a little - the rubber mats that have replaced sand are kind of silly), a lot of things around the playground have. For starters, parents' attitudes about playground safety have changed. On the survey above there is a term called "rough and tumble play" - I responded that, yes, I did do this as a child. I don't know many adults my age who would respond no to this. But I imagine that this is something that's a big no-no at the playground nowadays.

My favorite place to play as a child was the woods at the cottage (that's camp to my hometown residents of Northern Ontario!). Here, children of all ages from the neighboring cottages worked together to build multilevel forts. Big forts...forts you could live in - seriously, we had shingles on the roof. On most days we would kiss our moms goodbye and head into the woods with our tools just after breakfast and we usually needed to be reminded to eat sometime in the early afternoon, only to scarf down food as fast as we could to re-join our friends. We got cuts, scrapes, bruises (not just our egos when we weren't allowed to use the 'big' ax) and a occasionally someone cut their finger with a jack-knife (Ah-Hem...Sass). We actually nicknamed one of the trails 'the bloody foot trail'. But you know what? We had the best damn fort in the bay and we were proud of it.

As the oldest child in our small fort-building industry, it was often my job to delegate tasks to other children - after all, what's a construction site without a foreman around, right? Some of the jobs weren't so fun, and it was tough to delegate them to the other kids knowing this. I like to joke that everything I learned about leading a team I learned building forts in the woods of Horseshoe Bay, ON.

Back to the survey. Are playgrounds too safe? I don't really think so - perhaps marginally more safe than they already were, but it's not like there are any axes, jack-knives or bears hanging around playgrounds (usually, anyways). I think the problem is that kids might be spending too much time being supervised at the playground than building forts in the woods.