Can this funky piece of tech give our kids more freedom?

May 12, 2016 – Natalie Johnson – Previously Partnerships Manager At The Wild Network 

Parenting can often feel like wrestling an octopus, with one arm behind your back, while wearing a blindfold.

This is particularly true when it comes to technology. Do you give the kids a phone? Do you not? Do you let them use the computer? Do you let them use a device of any type? If so, when and how long for? At what age? And then what restrictions do you place around them? Finally…

How will you manage the dreaded ‘screen addiction’ we hear so much about?

I have three tech-savvy, Wild Time App loving, geocaching, YouTube watching, frequently (very) wild kids. It’s a constant struggle to balance everything they can do, want to do, should do, could do. So I was intrigued to recently be sent a new kind of smart-watch to trial with the children. It’s a mobile phone in a watch, designed specifically for kids. This is not like the smartphone watches that use, or add to, an existing smartphone. This was a simple digital watch, with a SIM card in it, able to make calls and receive calls from pre-approved numbers. You can’t play games on it, there’s no internet access and it even tells you the last location via GPS. The company claims that no smartphone is required, it’s designed for kids, it’s safe and super-easy to use. The blurb, as I say, was intriguing.

I politely refused. The Wild Network exists to support people who want to help kids get more free time outside.

We advocate teaching kids freedom, developing resilience and allowing them to learn about community and safety.

After discussing this bizarre idea of “basically tagging your kids” (my quote) with some friends, it seemed I was being simplistic and, perhaps, idealistic.  One friend said, “That’s a great way to stay connected without having to give in to a phone” and another, “Why wouldn’t you want that? It’s just an extra layer of security.” “My husband would love that, then he wouldn’t have to worry about losing his phone” – laughed another!

So I decided I would trial it.  Before you throw dirt at me and shout, “Traitor!” I’d like to explain why I did, acknowledge that it won’t be for everyone and some just won’t ever like it. That said, for others it might really help give their kids more freedom.

Working at The Wild Network makes questions around tech very tricky – both as a parent and as a professional.

I’m exposed daily to mountains of research that proves the negative affects of technology on kids. We know that time outside is vital for their development and wellbeing. We know that screen time is not. It’s pretty simple. Except navigating these decisions in our families is anything but simple.

In our increasingly tech-enabled lives, it would be foolish to pretend that technology isn’t, frankly, brilliantly enabling. It can bring with it real benefits for kids – through online apps, networked school systems etc. It also brings great benefits for adults. It wasn’t that long ago we didn’t have smartphones, or any mobile phones. You used to have to go to a phone box to call home if you were out. No cash? Reverse the charges and risk the wrath of your dad! Remember when arranging time with friends involved a full evening of ‘phoning your friends one-by-one?! There were no WhatsApp group chats then, or instant messenger. No private texts to sort out secret plans.

Technology is here, it won’t go away and our kids are learning about it at school, from friends and in the 3,000 or so advertising and marketing messages that they are exposed to every day. So the question for us as parents is can we use technology to better serve our everyday experiences?

Can technology help our kids get more Wild Time, learn about nature, find a way to connect with the world around them? We think it can.

From The Wild Network’s easy Wild Time app, to our online wild events calendar and Wild Time ideas, we are already using technology to tackle some of the barriers that prevent kids from getting outside. There are other barriers that are harder to tackle – media coverage of stranger danger, increasing traffic problems in our cities. Gangs. Lack of safe places to play. No two towns or cities are the same, no two cultures are the same and therefore no one-size-fits-all solution is available. So, we try and bring as many as possible to our network.

I addressed one of my own barriers in my blog 20 Minutes of Terror, that spoke about letting my kids walk home alone. Three factors helped me decide I was ready to let them walk home. (They had felt ready for a while!) These were:

  1. They walk the route daily and had for years, with a chaperone of some sort (often me).
  2. I have coached them on crossing the two busy roads by even marking out an exact spot to cross where all roads can be seen clearly at the junction (I’m just as neurotic as the next mum!)
  3. The eldest now has a mobile phone.

Despite knowing that kids have been abducted and their phone didn’t save them, despite knowing that kids today get knocked over crossing the road while on their phones, despite all of this, the fact that I could get hold of them easily gave me a level of peace that enabled the kids to have some short-lived freedom. Yes, it was about me, my fears and not them. But if it works for all of us, that’s surely a good thing?

Arguably, the My Gator Watch sent to me is one of a new breed of high tech devices developed to help parents. It answers our fears, not the kids’. It was developed by a mum who didn’t want to give her little one a phone, but who did want to feel more safely connected.

Like her, I don’t want to give my youngest child a mobile phone.

There are a myriad of reasons, not least the fact that I don’t want her to access the digital world freely. I don’t want her to be responsible for a mobile phone. She can’t remember her shoes some days. I do want her to get outside and walk home from school, when big sister heads to seniors this year. I do want them all to get outside more.

As a tool to help reassure today’s paranoid parents (me) and grandparents, neighbours and teachers (let’s be honest) I think this watch is great. To provide a safe way of staying in contact, for less money than a mobile phone, with pre-approved contact numbers and no internet access, I think it’s brilliant. If she calls me, or I call her, it also pinpoints her location, too. Some might think it a tad Orwellian, but I think like a mother of three daughters: paranoid and fearful, as well as desperately trying to give my kids a balanced and healthy upbringing. I feel happier knowing the eldest has a phone. I feel happier knowing the youngest has this watch.

And my daughter? She thinks it’s the coolest thing ever – I’m many kids would too! For a younger me, as a child of the ‘80s, my favourite cartoon was G-Force: Guardians of Space. I can’t remember a single plot line, but I can remember the G-Force watch – a watch where the five superheroes could talk to each other wherever they were. We thought it as the coolest thing ever.  How great would that be if one day technology could do that?  Imagine if I could connect with my friends and parents via a watch?

This watch won’t work for all parents or for all barriers. It can’t create green space; it won’t magic up a playground if you live in a high-rise tower block. But technology can help facilitate more Wild Time for some families and for some kids. It could definitely help my daughter get out more. It could help me feel less paranoid and it could tell me where she is if she happened to get lost at the beach (yes, that happened once).

I think it’s also how you choose to communicate that connection with your child. I won’t give my daughter a watch and tell her it will keep her safe. I will give it to her as the coolest thing ever!

In fact, I like it so much, I might ditch my smartphone – with its emails, internet distractions and constant social media alerts – and get one of these instead.

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