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Hanneke: “Kids don’t think offline vs. online”

Interview

5 December 2023

Hanneke Scholten is an assistant professor at the University of Twente, specializing in technology, human behavior, and development. Additionally, she serves as the co-director of the GEMH Lab, a research and development lab focused on creating and testing digital interventions, often in the form of games, to aid the mental health and well-being of young people. These interventions are designed for youth who may not currently have significant problems but could be at risk of mental health issues. The lab’s mission is to establish a solid scientific foundation for effective health games. Hanneke has also written an article on shaping identity in a digital era. We’ve asked her for tips on how kids can navigate this. 

  1. How do kids perceive the offline and online worlds, compared to adults?

Parents are the ones who tend to categorize the world into offline and online, especially because there was a clear distinction for them before the digital age. For children, this separation doesn’t exist; their world has always been this way. In the developmental phase around ages 9-12, kids are primarily focused on belonging, seeking connection. This phase is crucial for identity development. They want to do what their friends are doing, wherever that may be. So, whether it’s the school playground or playing FIFA on the Nintendo, the location isn’t as important as being with the people they want to connect with. This means that a child might feel excluded if they don’t have a phone while all their friends do. It’s not just about the phone; it’s about lacking access to the social world of their peers that seamlessly continues after school and on weekends.  

  1. There’s a lot of debate about the impact of screen time on children’s mental health. What’s your conclusion?

Scientific research hasn’t provided sufficient evidence for a clear relationship between screen time and children’s mental health. It’s about why they go online, who they encounter—wherever that may be—and the interactions they have. Online isn’t inherently bad and offline inherently good. Online just exposes children to many more sources and ideas, which can have positive, neutral, or negative effects. But there’s no direct correlation between screen time itself and children’s mental health.  

  1. What’s important for good screen time, in your opinion?

To avoid constant screen time disputes, consider the following:  

  • Rules – Having rules is essential, but being too rigid can backfire. So, agree, for example, that your child can use the phone for 1 hour after school. But be flexible. It’s okay if your son wants to finish a game, making it 1 hour and ten minutes. However, it might mean only 45 minutes of screen time another time.
  • Understanding – Don’t just view your kids and their phone use from your perspective. Try to understand what they’re going through, what they enjoy. If you dismiss them with statements like “screen time is wasting your time, do something useful like homework or playing outside,” you fail to grasp that you’re rejecting a part of your child’s world. For them, a portion of their life happens online, and that world doesn’t feel any different than playing hide and seek on the school playground.
  • Communication – This is the most obvious tip but often overlooked: talk to your kids about what they do and experience online, discuss the rules you have, why they’re important, and what they think about them. Maintaining this open communication is crucial for staying connected with your child.
  1. How do children shape their identity online?

Every child is different. To understand how your child forms their identity online, it’s crucial to see what they do. They deserve privacy, but discuss why they want to use a particular app and ask for permission to observe. You might be surprised that genuine interest in their world leads to openness, and observing is often not a problem. By participating, you can better determine if it’s the right place for activities like chatting through the app’s chat function. Identity is formed in interaction with others. Children start by wanting to belong somewhere and eventually, around adolescence, move to a phase where they don’t always want to fit in but seek to find and shape their own voice. The sources for shaping their identity are also largely online, but the problem is that algorithms and superficial interactions (like emojis and likes) don’t really help them find their own voice and craft their own story about who they truly are. We’re currently developing tools in our research to challenge young people to think about their own voice and story, providing depth for them to genuinely develop their identity.  

  1. What else should parents know?

From our studies, we often see that children frequently hear that they shouldn’t spend too much time on their phones, yet they see adults around them doing just that. Since children learn from their surroundings, it’s confusing to hear that excessive phone use is bad while witnessing a lot of phone use. This dual reality makes it difficult for them to know what to do and often leaves them feeling powerless. If we genuinely want our children to appreciate offline moments, we need to create open and meaningful offline moments together. We need to set a good example. 

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