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Video Games and Your Child or Young Person: A Parent’s Guide

Last year, Parenting NI wrote an article on video games and your children, which is available here. In that article, we spoke about the impacts of video games on children. We also spoke the positive and negative effects games might have on your child or young person, and went thorough where you might get more information.

However, due to consistent calls on the topic to the Regional Parent’s Helpline, we realised that it would be useful if we gave parents an overview of the games their children are playing.

Photo by Jessica Lewis

So, do you know your Battle Royales from your MOBAs? Do you know how much 100 “Vbucks” cost? Is your child or young person in a “clan” online? If you don’t know what any of this means – don’t worry! This article will go through three of the most popular games as of August 2018, and explain a few mechanics that are common in many games that parents should be aware of.

Roblox – PEGI rating “7”

If you have quite young children (particularly if they are still in primary school) you may have heard of Roblox. Launched in 2006, Robolox is what is called a “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” or MMORPG for short.

So what makes Roblox different, and what makes it particularly popular with younger children? Well, firstly, like all three games on this list Roblox is “free to play”. That means that in order to download and play the game, no money is required. This makes it accessible for children. Secondly, the unique element of Roblox is that is functions somewhat like an online version of LEGO. Players can develop their own games, which are hosted in a social media style list.

In fact, it is easier to understand Roblox not as a single, large game, but as a collection of many hundreds of smaller mini-games. You keep the same “character” in each of these games, and players can pay real money to customise their character. There are a wide range of “games” to play on Roblox. Unlike a typical game the quality, length and style of these games is varied. Many are copies of more popular games.

The appeal, particularly to younger children is the opportunity to play a sort of off-brand version of games that they may otherwise be unable to afford or that their parents are unwilling to purchase. For example, one of the most popular games is “Mining Simulator” based on Minecraft.

Gameplay – or what exactly players do in game – can vary widely. In one game, they may be building collaboratively, or attempting to work together to escape a maze. They may be pretending to be the manager of a company, or they may be fighting one another. Because of the simplistic and child-like graphics of Roblox, even potentially violent imagery is unlikely to be considered very offensive according to video games rating organisations.

Parents should be aware that while most games are harmless and the variety means that children have an opportunity to play many different types of games, there are issues with quality control. There have been incidents of inappropriate or obscene content and games. While Roblox attempts to keep this to a minimum, the volume of games (there are thousands of game types) makes this difficult. Not all games are free – some require a user to pay a fee (usually small) to access the game. However, because these games are user-created there are no specific rules about what must or must not be paid for.

Photo by Soumil Kumar

If you have a child or young person who plays Roblox, then you have most likely been asked to purchase “ROBUX” before. As previously mentioned, Roblox is free to play the basic game. However, the game earns money by selling in-game items for your in-game character. These are often user-generated and have an enormous variety. These items are bought using in game money called “Robux”. There are a number of ways in which a player might earn ROBUX, but the primary method is purchasing for real money.

Keeping in mind that there are more than 6000 items) it is easy to see how Roblox can become an expensive hobby quickly, despite being “free to play”. In addition, the items for sale may or may not be suitable for younger children. Because of the exclusivity of the paid for items, there is prestige associated with having them in game. This contributes to the appeal for players, particularly young players who have limited access to the money to buy the items themselves.

A strong component of Roblox popularity is the social aspects of the game. While most online games will have some form of interactivity, the “massively multiplayer” aspect of Roblox is one of the primary draws for players. Each game type will have multiple separate games playing called “servers”. Servers are listed and players can join if they are open and have spare slots.

A player will not necessarily know the other players on their server. Each server (and game type) will be different, and as such may have different rules and regulations. Some basic rules apply over all servers, which Roblox have collected in their community guidelines. These are fairly extensive and ban things like swearing, sexualisation and bullying. It is important for parents to keep in mind that much of this moderation requires the behaviours being reported, and therefore can be inconsistent or slow.

Players can add others to a “friends list”, if they both have a Roblox account. While this is helpful for children or young people who wish to play together, there is no requirement that that they know each other in real life. Parenting NI would recommend parents get to know who is on their child’s “friend list”.

Fortnite – PEGI rating “12”

If you have heard of any of the games on this list, you have probably heard of Fortnite. Fortnite is a shooter game, played in either first person (looking “though” the eyes of the player) or third-person (looking over the shoulder of the player) perspective.  Fortnite was first released in 2017, reaching 125 million players by June of 2018.

While there are two main game “styles”, by far the more popular is “Battle Royale”. This mode pits up to 100 individual players into a last-man standing battle. Players can play alone (called Solos) or in squads of twos (Duos) or fours (Quads). Players start in a “battle bus”, a literal bus pictured above which flies over the playing field. Players jump (or “drop”) at a chosen point. Upon landing, they scavenge for items such as guns and armour and seek to be the last person (or team) alive. At this point, the game is over and a winner is announced. They can also build structures or defences in the game in real time.

Photo by Jamie McInall

Like Roblox, Fortnite is free to play the base game. Those seeking “skins” (costumes for player characters), “emotes” (animations such as dances) or other cosmetic items must purchase these with in-game money called “Vbucks”. VBucks range in price – because Fortnite can be played on the Xbox, a computer, on a phone or other platforms. They can be spent in-game on a rotating selection of items.

There are a number of subtle marketing tactics that are in play with in-game purchases as opposed to using real money. Firstly, any given item is only available to purchase in a random rotation. When a player sees a costume they want, there is an urgency to buy right away – or else they may have to wait an undetermined period of time for another chance.

Secondly, the fact that Vbucks are bought in blocks of hundreds, players usually have left over in-game currency. This creates a feeling that unused currency is “money wasted” and encourages further purchases of Vbucks to “make use” of the remainder.

In this way, the game makes buying items quickly and repeatedly very appealing to a player. It also helps to explain why a child may be insistent on day that a parent provide money, and seem relatively disinterested the next. Those who do not (or cannot afford to) buy items are sometimes mocked as “no-skins” or “nobodies”.

The popularity of Fortnite is intrinsically linked to “streaming”, this is the practice of sharing video in real-time of your game play with others. The two most popular websites for streaming are Youtube and Twitch. As of writing, there are more than 121,000 people watching Fortnite on switch and the most popular “streamers” are casting to an audience in excess of 29,000 viewers. The appeal of watching their favourite “streamers” is similar to watching a professional sport match. Those watching a stream can communicate with each other and with the person casting via a “chat” system. A sub-culture often sprouts up around a particular streamer. This can include in-jokes, common slang terms and other elements that are easily identifiable to those in the know, and unintelligible to those without.

Popular streamers are able to earn significant sums of money from donations, brand deals and advertising. The prospect of making money playing video games, along with having loyal fans explains why many children have begun to see “streamer” or “youtuber” as an exciting potential career. If a group of children or young people at school all follow the same streamer, it can become an important part of their social life. However, it is very important for parents to understand that while the video game is providing the background and content for the stream, the stream itself is not regulated in the same manner.

League of Legends – PEGI rating “12”

League of Legends, or LoL is a free to play Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA game. In this game, and others like it (Defence of the Ancients 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm for example) two teams of 3-5 each players choose “champion” characters and battle for control of a map. League of Legends is arguably the most popular MOBA – with around 100 million active players per month. Like Fortnite or Roblox, League of Legends is free to play, and makes money by selling in-game items and characters.

Photo by Hitesh Choudhar

There are around 140 different “champions” in League of Legends. Each has a slightly different play style –for example, one may be effective at long range or may be able to heal friends of damage. League of legends is an older game, first released in 2009. Its game play is also arguably more complex and challenging than Roblox’s most popular modes and Fortnite’s battle royale. As a result of both of these factors, the player base for League of Legends tends to be a little older. In all likelihood, if your child or young person is playing league of legends or another MOBA they will be in their mid to later teens. If they are playing League of Legends or other MOBA games, and are younger, parents should be particularly cautious.

Not every champion is available to play at all times. Each week, a different selection of champions will be available to play for free. If a player wishes to play as a champion who is not in the current rotation, they have to purchase them.  In League of Legends, there are two types of currency, a standard and premium. These are:

“Riot Points” – this is the premium currency. These must be bought and can be used to purchase cosmetic items and champions.

“Blue Essence” – This is the standard currency, and is earned via playing the game.

By having some items available to purchase with points rather than only for real money, the developers can argue that they are not as exploitative as normal free to play games. One of the issues with this is that the quality and range of items available for purchase with premium currency is much more than with standard.

One of the major concerns that parents may have about League of Legends and other MOBA games is the toxicity of the community that their child is playing with. While all online games will have a level of unpleasant behaviour, League of Legends is renowned for having a particular problem with this. While the developers of the game have made consistent efforts to address this, the gameplay loop of league of legends is uniquely susceptible to problem behaviour.

If your child or young person is having strong reactions to their performance in video games, the best step a parent can take is to talk to them. Parents may justifiably feel that their child or young person is overreacting to a loss in a game, but should take the time to consider why they may be acting in this way. It is possible that they are simply upset about the game, but equally it may be a sign of more general frustration in life.

Asking your young person why they feel so emotionally invested and get so upset is an opportunity to talk about feelings and how to deal with emotions. Simply shutting them down and telling them to “get over it” may inadvertently cause more stress.

Payment and Parental Controls

You may have read stories in the media about parents who have gotten stung with large, unexpected bills because of their child’s in-game purchases. The main manner by which this happens is parents accidentally letting the game “save” their credit card details. In the same way that Tesco, Amazon or any number of online businesses can save details to make payment easier, so to can video games.

From there, it is relatively easy for children or young people to make further purchases. They may do this intentionally, but it is equally likely that they will click assuming that it will not work. The best way to combat this is to ensure that you do not tick “save my payment details” when making a purchase. Alternatively, many games allow you to make physical purchases of vouchers that can be redeemed online. If you use this method, no payment details are ever processed by the game.

Photo by George Becker

Another important aspect of video gaming, particularly for younger children are parental controls. Some games have specific parental controls built in, but the easiest way to implement them is via the platform that your child or young person uses to play the game. In the case of the three games that are listed here, the “platform” is a PC, Xbox or PlayStation. Each has its own method of implementing parental controls. For a PC, this is a little more complicated, as parents will often need to install third-party programmes to monitor and restrict access to individual websites, games or programmes. Rather than suggesting a particular company, Parenting NI would advise parents to ask someone in their life who is comfortable with computers to help, or to ask for help from an expert.

For PlayStation and Xbox, setting up parental controls involves going into the settings on the consoles. On the Xbox, head to “Settings > Account > Family” and choose your child or young person’s username. From there, you will be presented with a number of options to restrict games based on age rating. On a PlayStation, go to “Settings > Parental controls/Family Management > Parental Controls”. Again, you will be presented with a number of individual options to restrict games and features.

Conclusion

Video games are a fast evolving medium. By the time that you are reading this article, it is entirely possible that all of the above games will have waned in popularity. Equally, there are thousands of games available, and your child or young person may be playing any of them.

It is important to try to know the names of the games that your child is playing. Games are regulated by the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, and are rated. Parents can go on to the PEGI website here, and can search for any game. This will give an overview of the content of the game, and help parents to determine if the game is suitable for their child. This system works like movie ratings, and Parenting NI would strongly encourage parents to check the ratings of every game that they know their child is playing.

The most effective step that a parent can take is communicating with their young person. While taking an active interest in the games your child or young person plays may be challenging, having a general understanding of what they play and what is involved will help allay fears and catch problems. It is unreasonable to expect a parent to have an in-depth understanding of every video game that their child may play. However, rather than seeing them as mystifying sources of concern, parents should see their children’s interest in gaming as an opportunity.

Instead of saying “this is a waste of your time” or “go outside and play”, which may lead to an argument, ask “what do you like about that game?”. Children will appreciate the chance to talk about their interests, and parents may learn more about what their child enjoys.

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Your Young Person’s Sexuality/Gender Identity A Parent’s Guide

Sexuality has always been a complicated and difficult subject for parents and young people to discuss. A complex combination of social norms, values, biology and traditions combine into a perfect storm of confusion and potential for conflict.

Despite this, while parents and young people may have different ideas about what is or is not morally acceptable, parents generally would want their child to feel that they can be themselves around them.

When a young person talks to their parents about an element of their sexual identity (or they learn about it from another source) it can be difficult. Parents will often want to be supportive, but may struggle to understand some of the terms or realities of what they are being told.

There is clear evidence that many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) people do not feel comfortable about being open about who they are with family members. In the 2018 National LGBT survey, 23.8% of all LGBT people were open with none of the family members they lived with. Katz-Wise et. Al (2016) found that “one-third of youth experience parental acceptance, another third experience parental rejection, and the remaining third do not disclose their sexual orientation even by their late teenage years and early twenties”.

Many teens fear the reaction of their parents if or when they disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. When recalling negative incidents, the National LGBT survey (2018) found that the most often named instigator was a parent or guardian. While the vast majority of parents want their children to be happy and safe, there is stress on both sides of this difficult conversation. This stress, if not appropriately managed can have negative consequences.

How you react will have an impact on the outcomes for your child. LGBT young people statistically have worse mental health outcomes – a report in 2014 found that “more than half of young gay people have suffered mental health issues, and 40 per cent have considered suicide” (Merrill, 2014). However, a parents support and love can help to mitigate these. Shilo & Savaya (2011) found that family support had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBT young people.

Additionally, it is important that a young person feels able to tell you about their sexual orientation. Rothman et al. (2012) found that having disclosed one’s sexual orientation was “associated with higher levels of the health risk behaviours and conditions”. Simply put, children are likely to have better outcomes if they feel comfortable telling their parents about their sexual orientation.

How to react

So, what should parents do when their young person opens up to them that they are not heterosexual (solely attracted to the opposite gender) or cisgender (that they identify as the same gender on their birth certificate)?

Most importantly we would encourage parents to not panic.

While parents may have suspected that this was the case, a confirmation can be shocking or difficult to initially process. It is common for parents to feel negative feelings – Baiocco et al. (2014) – suggested that parents are often concerned about what other people, friends and relatives could think about their sons and daughters sexuality, the judgment of other people, maybe even about their own parental skills.

Tobkes & Davidson (2016) describe the three feelings of “loss” that a parent who has learnt of their child’s LGBT sexual orientation may feel:

    Loss of a “traditional” life

    Loss of a safe and easy life

    Loss of a child

The final of these losses is often the cause of such extreme actions as telling a child that he or she is “no longer part of the family”. While feelings of loss or sadness are understandable, the long-term impact of a severe reaction such as this are highly damaging and difficult to overcome. Potoczniak et al (2009) found that the outcomes from a negative reaction were sometimes very serious with 3% of those who “came out” becoming totally estranged from family and that disclosure in 4% of maternal relationships and 9% of paternal relationships either “totally destroyed or worsened an already bad relationship”.

Even if you are highly upset or shocked by your child’s revelation, take care that any reaction you have does not have a lasting negative impact on your relationship.

It is understandable that parents may feel loss, however it is important to remember that nothing has actually been lost. While this may have been an aspect of your child that parents were unaware of previously, they are still the same person. Even if you considered yourself to be accepting of LGBT individuals, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FFLAG), a charitable organisation dedicated to supporting LGBT individual’s families notes in their guide for parents that:

“Many parents who believe that they are totally accepting of lesbian, gay or bisexual people, and who don’t consider themselves prejudiced or judgemental are likely to find themselves, if only temporarily, knocked off balance by an announcement that they have a lesbian, gay or bisexual daughter or son”

Parents should remain mindful of the important role their support plays in their child’s self-worth and identity. Willoughby et al. (2008) notes:

“Individuals’ perceptions of themselves are, in part, based on the ways they perceive their parents to view them. Thus, insofar as individuals feel rejected by their loved ones, they may be likely to see themselves as unlovable and unworthy”

You may need some time and space to process this news. That is normal, try to work through your feelings either not in the presence of your child or in such a manner that it does not make them feel it is their “fault”. Stonewall (2018) advises parents that regardless of their own feelings about “being gay”, “you love them and want them to be happy. The fact that they are gay or lesbian doesn’t change that”.

Communication and Terms

An important aspect of responding to your child “coming out”, is to listen. It is possible that you may have preconceived ideas of what certain terms mean, but sexual orientation is an individual experience. An additional challenge for parents is that the terms used to describe sexual orientation and gender identity are constantly changing. While many parents will be familiar with “gay” or “homosexual”, the more modern concepts can seem baffling.

The person best placed to tell you what this disclosure means for your child, is your child. However, it may also be helpful to familiarise yourself with very common terms. The acronym most commonly used is LGBTQIA+. These terms as defined by the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Resource Center of Michigan State University are:

Lesbian – Term used to describe women who are exclusively or primarily attracted to other women in a romantic, erotic, and/or emotional sense. Not all women who engage in “homosexual behaviour” identify as lesbians, and as such this label should be used with caution

Gay – Used in some cultural settings to represent men who are exclusively or primarily attracted to other men in a romantic, erotic and/or emotional sense. Not all men who engage in “homosexual behaviour” identify as gay, and as such this label should be used with caution. Also a general term for gay men and lesbians.

Bisexual – A person who experiences sexual, romantic, physical, and/or spiritual attraction to people of their own gender as well as other genders, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree

Transgender – A person who identifies with a gender other than that the gender they were assigned at birth. Sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.

Queer/Questioning – An umbrella term which includes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans* people, intersex persons, radical sex communities, and many other sexually transgressive communities. This term is sometimes used as a sexual orientation label or gender identity label used to denote a non-heterosexual or cisgender identity without having to define specifics. A reclaimed word that was formerly used solely as a slur but that has been reclaimed by some folks in the LGBTQ community. Nevertheless, a sizable percentage of people to whom this term might apply still hold “queer‟ to be a hateful insult, and its use by heterosexual people is often considered offensive.

Intersex – Individual(s) born with the condition of having physical sex markers (genitals, hormones, gonads, or chromosomes) that are neither clearly male nor female. Intersex people are sometimes defined as having “ambiguous” genitalia.

Asexual – Person who does not experience sexual attraction. They may or may not experience emotional, physical, and/or romantic attraction. Asexuality differs from celibacy in that it is a sexual orientation, not a choice

The “+” symbol is an acknowledgement that these terms do not necessarily cover the entire spectrum of human sexuality. It simply leaves the process open to further development.

Stonewall (2018), a UK-based LGBT rights charity suggests that when a young person “comes out” to a parent they should allow the child to say their piece before asking questions. This can show them that you are a safe and understanding person to talk to about their sexuality or gender identity. This is important because just like if they were heterosexual, if your child feels unsafe talking to you about sexuality or gender identity it can lead to serious omissions. They may take more risks, or fail to alert you if they are harassed or sexually assaulted.

What about if you suspect that your child or young person is LGBT, but they have not yet spoken to you? Relate (2018) notes that it is not helpful to pressure them to “come out” before they are ready. Instead, you should take steps to ensure that your home is a supportive place for them if they are LGBT. For example, making positive comments about LGBT individuals and refusing to tolerate homophobic or transphobic language. Your child will tell you when they are ready, and you should be there for them when it is time.

Transgender children

For children or young people who are transgender, there are some important differences. First of all, it is important to understand that very young children (for example, under 5s) often show interest in toys or clothes that are not usually associated with their gender (NHS, 2018). Therefore, as with LGB children, parents should not try to second guess if they suspect their child may be transgender.

As with LGB children, parents should start by listening. Your child may choose to explore medical options as part of their identity. However, they may not. They may choose to “present” as one gender all of the time, or it may depend on the day. Action for Children (2018) notes that Adults should make every effort to address the child in the way they have requested. Your child’s gender identity can be confusing for them and for their parents, but a negative or hostile reaction is unlikely to have any positive outcomes.

Depending on your child’s age and desires, the next steps vary. Mermaids UK (2018), a support organisation for transgender people notes that medical transition in young people usually consists of taking hormone blockers after the initial stages of puberty which are completely reversible and simply pause puberty. While it is important to communicate with your child regarding what happens next, the focus should be on your initial reaction. Your child should know that you still love them unconditionally, and that you will support them.

Conclusion

There is no “right” way to deal with the fact that your child may be LGBT. Every family, and every individual is different and has different support requirements. If you suspect that your child may be LGBT, but they have not yet confided in you, seek out information to prepare yourself. If your child has recently informed you, remain calm and reassure them that you love them regardless of circumstances.

There are a number of excellent recourses locally to support LGBT young people and their parents. Parenting NI’s helpline (0808 8010 722) can provide advice and support for anyone in a parenting role. Additionally, groups like Cara-friend, SAIL and The Rainbow Project can offer specialist LGBT support.

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Getting Enough Sleep: The Importance of Bedtime

Bedtimes

Getting children to go to bed on time can be a constant issue for parents. Debate and argument over when to turn the lights out is one of the few nearly universal struggles for parents. The fact that there are many different and often conflictual news stories, anecdotes and myths about what is the “right” time for a parent to insist a child  sleeps only adds to confusion and concern. This article will look at what the research says about how much sleep is needed, and will provide a few tips and strategies for parents to help ease the process of getting children to go to bed.

(Source: pixabay.com)

The Science of Sleep

Everyone needs sleep. That much is established and uncontroversial. But, did you know that scientists aren’t sure why we need to sleep? A BBC article (Ghosh, 2015) which asks why we need to sleep notes that: “Scientists simply don't know for sure. In broad terms researchers believe it is to enable our bodies and especially our brains to recover.” The actual mechanics of sleep work roughly like this: Humans are diurnal, which means that we are awake during the day, and sleep at night. This is as opposed to nocturnal, like bats. Our natural inclination is to sleep during hours of darkness, and to be active during daylight. As any parent who has attempted to put a young child to bed during a long summer evening will be very aware.

Our sleep-wake patterns, called “Circadian rhythms” are regulated by light and darkness (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). This is why, for example, you can struggle to fall asleep if there is a lot of light in your room despite being tired.

While sleeping, people move between two states – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM).

These stages are broken down into further categories – NREM sleep has three (N1, N2 and N3) and REM sleep has just one. Very broadly speaking, REM allows people to process and store information from the day before and is important for memory. NREM is important for feeling relaxed and refreshed after sleeping. Both are vital, and the amount of time that you spend in both NREM and REM change as you grow up. For example, Adults spend about 20-25% of their sleep in REM, whereas a new-born spends around 80% of its sleep in REM (Nierenberg, 2017).

How much sleep do children and young people actually need?

The NHS (2018) gives the following times, which are based on the Millpond Children's Sleep Clinic’s recommendations:

4 week old: Daytime 6-7 hours and night-time 8-9 hours

1 year old: Daytime 1 hr 30 minutes and night-time 11 hrs 30 minutes

5 year old: Night-time 11 Hours

10 year old: Night-time 9 hrs 45 minutes

14-16 year olds: Night-time 9 hours More figures are available here.

Obviously, these are general figures and will not apply to all children as everyone is individual and develops differently. However, it is important that parents consider how bedtime might change according to their child’s age. For example, a 10-year old child, who has to waken up at 7.00 am and be at school for 9.00 am. In order to be at school for 9.00 am, a 10 year old child ideally should be asleep by 9.45pm. For some parents, this may seem too late, and others very early. As with all advice on issues relating to parenting, it is best to consider this in the context of your own child or young person’s needs. What these numbers do show however, is that children and young people have different requirements for sleep as they grow up. Although what complicates this, is that often simply “getting enough sleep” is not a matter of going to bed and waking up at particular times every day. As previously mentioned, outside and inside light can disrupt sleepiness. So can caffeine, screen time and other variables.

Melatonin, an important sleep hormone is essential in causing tiredness and entering restful sleep. However, teenagers face a hormonal challenge – adult bodies begin to produce melatonin around 10.00pm or 11.00pm. Teenagers on the other hand, often do not start to produce it until around 01.00am (Alaska Sleep Clinic, 2013). This means that simply attempting to force a teenager to go to bed earlier may not yield good sleep. Instead of trying to force a teenager to go to bed, a better alternative would be to try sleep promoting techniques. Things like putting away screens, not drinking caffeine after 2pm or even trying meditation (Cline, 2009) can help teenagers get to sleep when they might otherwise struggle.

(Source: John-Mark Smith)

It is also important for parents to understand this biological process which is going on in their teenager’s body. It may explain why their teen has the energy to stay awake very late playing video games or watching TV, but struggles to wake up in the morning! In 2012, a Telegraph article found that two thirds of children were not getting enough sleep in the UK. It suggested that the average 6 year old did not go to bed until 9.30. Even more worryingly, around a quarter of children said they struggled to concentrate in school and even fell asleep in class. Aside from the obvious concern regarding missing classes and learning, lack of sleep is associated with poorer memory (Harrison & Horne, 2000). This means that lack of sufficient sleep can have a negative impact on children’s educational attainment.

Parents need sleep too.

The importance of sleep is central to everyone’s overall wellbeing. Lack of sleep is a major issue, not only for children but for adults as well. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA declared insufficient sleep a public health problem. The NHS (2018) in the UK notes that 1 in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed. The impact of lack of sufficient sleep in children is more than just sluggishness and bad mood. The NHS (2018) warns that consistent nights of poor sleep can fog our decision making, cause us to be depressed and run an increased risk of physical injury. Lichtenstein (2015) notes that lack of sleep increases our risks of gastrointestinal diseases, like stomach ulcers and reflux.

What to do about sleep:

Still, even if parents have a strong understanding of why their child or teenager struggles to get enough sleep, there are often circumstances that are beyond the parents control. School or work start times can constrain even the most concerned parents. There are however a number of key steps that can help with setting bedtimes. The first is to start as soon as is practicable. It is much easier to introduce a bedtime with a toddler than to attempt to impose one on a teenager. Getting your child used to going to bed at a particular time when they are young reduces the stress later in life. This can be a real challenge – around 20-30% of children experience sleep problems in their first three years of life (Teng et al. 2012). There are a number of techniques however than can assist with helping get a small child to accept bed times. For example, Parents Magazine (2018) gives the following steps:

  *  Set a specific time – and stick to it
  *  Give a warning
  *  Offer a (light) snack
  *  Give your child a warm bath
  *  Get dressed for bed
  *  Read a story with your child
  *  Play soft music while you read
  *  Provide a cuddly toy for the child to sleep with
  *  Limit or get rid of bottles
  *  Keep your last “good night” brief

The first point is arguably the most important. In line with the Authoritative Parenting Style (Explained here), consistency is a vital aspect in easing the difficulty associated with bed time.

Research suggests that instituting a consistent nightly bedtime routine is beneficial in improving multiple aspects of infant and toddler sleep, especially wakefulness after sleep onset and sleep continuity. It also improves maternal mood. (Mindell, 2009). Parents who are still struggling with bedtimes can also avail for support from Parenting NI’s helpline (0808 8010 722).

Another issue faced by parents is that as their child gets older, it becomes increasingly difficult to impose bedtimes. “But my friends get to stay up and watch …” or “I have to go to sleep way earlier than everyone else!” are familiar refrains. As shown previously, the levels of sleep needed change as a child matures. Therefore, parents shouldn’t be afraid to be flexible within reasonable limits as their children grow up. Additionally, every child is different, and parents will have a good how much sleep their child needs. The later-life impacts of setting bed times can be dramatic. One study found that adolescents with later (after 12 midnight) or no parent-set bedtimes were 24% more likely to suffer from depression and were 20% more likely to have reported suicidal ideation in the past year than adolescents with parent-set bedtimes before 10 pm (Short et al. 2011). Therefore, while it can be difficult to introduce and stick to a bedtime, the improvements are often dramatic.

Another aspect of sleep time that applies to children and adults is screen time. A study found that on average, children with three technology items in their bedroom received 45 fewer minutes of sleep than did children without these items in their bedroom (Calamaro et al. 2012). Additionally, the blue-light emitted by screens can cause our brains to misinterpret light and dark cycles and make sleep more difficult. Thus, parents can improve the likelihood of sleeping by removing tablets, phones or other screens around half an hour before bed. In the end, what works for one family with regards to getting to sleep might not work for another. Parents are encouraged to try these strategies, or seek help to find what works for them and their children.

Contact Parenting NI

Give us a call on 0808 8010 722

“Is this okay?” – Talking to children & young people about consent

Talking about consent can be tough!

Talking about relationships with your child or young person is one of the more challenging aspects of parenting. Not only can it be embarrassing or sensitive, but there are often disagreements around morals, ideas and views about what is okay and when. Consent, and what it means is often a difficult issue to address.

Nonetheless, recent high-profile events have highlighted the importance for young people of having a good understanding of consent. While they will get some education at school regarding relationships and sex, it is the responsibility of parents to explain much of the tricky social and moral issues.

But, how do you talk to your child or young person about this important but complex issue?

Here are some ideas of how you can talk to your child or young person about consent:

- Talk to young children – make sure they understand that they have to get consent to hug or kiss friends or family. Don’t make them hug or kiss if they don’t want to.

- Tell young children about boundaries – that it is not okay for people to see or touch them in private areas. Nor is it okay for them to see or touch someone else there.

- Talk about the law with older children – tell them what the age of consent is (16) and that there are real consequences for activity below this age.

- Talk to your teen -  Ask their opinions on consent. You might want to use a high-profile event as a starting point. You might ask “Did you hear about that in the news? What do you think about that?” By starting the discussion by asking their views, you avoid them feeling like this is a lecture.

- Talk about what is and is not consent - Make sure that they understand how important verbal, consistent and repeated consent is. Make sure both boys and girls know that flirting, clothing and “not being told no” do not necessarily mean consent is given.

- Encourage your children to make sure others are okay too – talk to them about what they might do if one of their friends seemed to be in an uncomfortable situation. Ask them what they might do if their friend was the one acting irresponsibly.

- Eliminate self-blame - Tell them that they always have a right to be respected, and that consent needs to be sought and given by both parties.

- Make sure they understand how to say no - and how to recognise when someone else might be saying no.

- Get rid of notions about gatekeepers and initiators. Make sure your teen knows that it is normal for both boys and girls to want to have sex, but that is also okay if they don’t want to.

- Ask for support! There are plenty of organisations that can help you.

Contact Parenting NI

You can give us a call on 0808 8010 722

Download the Full Report

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Mental Health Awareness Week: Workplace Stress

30% of working parents feel burnout regularly

This Mental Health Awareness Week is focusing on Stress. Managing stress levels and promoting wellbeing in the workplace is considered crucial to maintaining a productive workforce. Yet stress is still a big problem for many. 

Stress can be caused by many things but for working parents a major source of stress can be the ongoing struggle to balance the demands of work and home life. In addition to the ongoing need to arrange and pay for childcare, find workable arrangements during the school holidays, and sort out the daily school run and scheduling of after-school activities, many parents feel a sense of guilt that they are not able to give their work or their home life as much time and energy as they would like.

When you’re feeling stressed at work here are some tips you can try to help reduce stress levels:

Ask for help
Everyone needs help from time to time. Have a chat with your manager about your workload and how they can help you solve any problems you are having.

Striking a balance
Balancing your time can be a real challenge as a working parent. Occasionally you may need to work longer hours to get something done, but try to claim this time back later if you can.

Be realistic
Remember, you can’t be ‘perfect’ all the time. Set boundaries to ensure you’re not taking on too much and be realistic with the targets and goals you set.

Get into a habit
Do something at the end of each working day, such as tidying your desk or making a list of what needs to be done the next day. This can help you to switch off from work.

Develop relationships
Connecting with your colleagues can help to build up a network of support and make work more enjoyable.

Take short breaks
Try to take short breaks throughout your day, as well as time away from your desk at lunchtime. Why not try going for a short walk outside

Parenting NI are delighted to be working with businesses and organisations throughout Northern Ireland in supporting their parent employees. To find out more about what we offer click here.

Having conversations about Mental Health in the Workplace

Aside from the theme of Stress, Mental Health Awareness Week aims to highlight the importance of Mental Health and reduce the stigma around talking about it. This week over 300 radio stations joined to broadcast the same message about mental health. They are calling on the law to be changed and make it a legal requirement to have trained mental health first aiders in every workplace or college.

It can be difficult to approach having a conversation with a colleague about mental health, but we all have mental health just like physical health. If we noticed a colleague had the cold or was in pain we would ask them how they were doing and show support. However, it can be more difficult to notice and also very difficult to ask about how someone is doing mentally. 

There is no perfect way to start a conversation about someone’s wellbeing, but just being there to listen in an empathetic and non-judgemental way can help. Below are some tips on how you might approach a colleague, someone you work with or manage, if you’re worried about them.

  • Choose a place you can chat privately – maybe suggest going for a walk or grabbing a coffee
  • Choose an appropriate time, like a break time or lunch
  • Show that you are actively listening by giving them eye contact and physical and verbal nods.
  • Ask open questions – “How are you today” – sometimes making it about the present can prevent the ubiquitous “I’m fine” response
  • Reassure the person that it is okay to talk
  • Let them know that you are there to listen to them and help if they need you to 
  • If mental health is being discussed in the news why not use this as an opportunity to bring it up in the office and get conversation going?

Time to Change have great resources which can be downloaded from their website on having conversations about mental health. 

Connected Children: How Young is “Too Young” for a Smartphone?

Smartphones are the unavoidable icon of modern life...


The pace with which smartphones have become established is remarkable, they are now as integrated into modern culture as cars or computers. Today around 30% of Children aged 9 own a smart phone, rising to more than 90% by the age of 16 (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2015). In the UK, 1 in 8 children have a mobile by the age of 8 (Aviva, 2017). 

While there are a range of benefits to children using technology, there are also a number of undeniable risks. “What age should I give my child a phone?” is a common question we hear from parents. It can be difficult to strike the balance between keeping children safe and socially isolating them.

This Parent's Guide article will examine the statistics and weigh up the pros and cons for parents and children.

Impact of Smartphones on...

Young Children

There is no strict rule as to when children are “ready” for smart phones. Research has noted children of less than 30 months old cannot learn from videos in the same way as real-life. Therefore, one of the most significant positive factors of using technology does not apply to them. 

What age do the benefits (or negatives) of technology begin to impact on children?

It is difficult to be clear about the possible benefits and opportunities of internet usage for young children. Some research will suggest that owning a mobile device will increase readiness for schools. Educational apps and games can help with development of skills that might otherwise be difficult for parents.

On the other hand, there are many reports suggest "too much tech" from a young age negatively impacts on children.  This year, The Guardian reported that children were struggling to hold pencils properly because they had been playing with phones or tablets. In addition, a  University of Toronto report found that “infants with more handheld screen time have an increased risk of an expressive speech delay” (Birken, 2017). They found that every 30 minute increase in the daily use of handheld screens in very young children translated into a 49% increased risk of speech delay.

Another risk related concern is very young people being able to connect with a wide range of individuals. Use of communication apps can leave them vulnerable to grooming. Less obvious, are potential dangers from interactions which are secondary to the purpose of the app. This was seen in 2017 when YouTube reporting function on children's videos had not been working properly.

It is difficult to argue that young children benefit greatly from ownership of a smartphone. While there are certainly some advantages to making judicious usage of educational apps, excessive or unrestricted access is highly detrimental.

However, that's not to say you can't occasionally let your young children watch a YouTube video or Skype with relatives!

Primary Age Children

Around 68% of parents think children should be at least 9 before they get their first phone, and around a third suggesting 12 as a minimum age. Equally, most parents will feel that it is appropriate for teenagers to have access. 

Research tells us that 11 is when most children get their first phone. However, sites which children may want to access on their phone, such as Instagram and Snapchat, require you to be at least 13. Children younger than this could be exposed to content they are not ready for.

Another risk associated with primary aged children having a smartphone, is the the chance of them experiencing cyber-bullying. Research says that younger children would be more likely to report being the victim of physical bullying. Whereas, older pupils would be more likely to report experiencing more types of cyber-bullying. Not having a phone is by no means a guarantee of protection from online-bullying, but the link is significant.

What are the benefits?

Safety is a benefit parents will often think of when it comes to their child owning a phone. It is good to be able to contact your child as they start independent activities, like after school clubs or going out with friends. Access to the internet and services like Google Maps could assist if the child is lost, or unsure of where to ask for help.

Skills children develop by using technology, including smart phones, is increasingly important in later life. A report for the Department of Education in England noted that building digital skills were “an essential contemporary skill set”. Depriving a child of this may also inadvertently disadvantage them.

Additionally, there is the social aspect to having a phone. All parents are familiar with the cry that “everyone else in class has one”. However, statistics suggest that children may not be exaggerating in this regard. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne Australia released a report in 2017  stating that “Young children owning smartphones is the new normal”. Numbers for the UK broadly align with this. In effect, when deciding when a child should first receive a phone a parent is making a difficult choice that affects not just their safety or education development, but also their social status.

Teenagers and Young Adults

Most teenagers will have a smartphone. They are also extremely avid consumers of online content via their phones. Over a third of young people claiming to be online more than 6 hours a day on weekends and almost a quarter spending this amount of time on week days. UK usage in both cases is above the OECD average, meaning that parents in the UK face a greater challenge than parents of the rest of the world. 

However, the benefits of phone usage can increase with age. Particularly as a young person becomes increasingly independent. With likely access to their own money,  particularly for over 16's, there are less levels of potential parental control. 

Despite the benefits, which the guide has explored, there are concerns around teens phone use too... 

41% of parents said that they find it difficult to control their child’s screen time. 

A report looking at over a thousand teens in Australia found that poor-quality sleep associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health. The reasons given for such use, particularly late at night, were a “fear of missing out” on content. The reasons for this vary for boys and girls. Many girls noted major US-based social media influencers whose content they consume, means the time differences account for the "need" to be awake and active online at night. On the other hand, boys note that major video game content creators are based in East Asia, again complicating sleep.  Poor sleep, coupled with potential cyber-bullying can have negative effects on teenagers. When they are put into stressful or difficult circumstances without the defence of being well-rested, it is easy to see how it can impact physical and mental health.

Gaming and Sexting

Gaming on phones is something all children can take part in, but it is particularly popular with teenagers. Around 70% of teens play video games, and 84% of teenage boys do. As explored in a previous blog, online gaming comes with its own pros and cons.  It is important to consider gaming when it comes to teenagers smartphone usage. The most popular phone games can have millions of users worldwide, and some argue that they are highly addictive. Regulations are also more lax than more traditional gaming consoles or PCs.

There is also the concern of young people both creating and viewing sexualised content. A JAMA Paediatrics report found that almost 1 in 5 young people had either sent or received sexual content of themselves. As many as 12% admitted to forwarding such an image without the consent of the individual. This suggests not only that sending of this content is common, but there may be negative social pressures on teenagers to engage in it. 

There are serious issues regarding this. Not least moral and ethical, there is also a real danger of legality if the content is of an underage individual. While conversations regarding this content are extremely difficult for parents – but it is equally vital.

Many of the concerns regarding younger children do not necessarily disappear at teenage years, and it can be argued that the concerns of when to expose children to smart phones becomes increasingly complicated.

In Conclusion...

It is undeniable that smartphones are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. You know your child best, and therefore will be in the best position to decide what they access and when. Technology and children's usage of it is a concern for many parents, but it's important to remember that you are not alone in struggling with this subject. Parenting NI is here, for a listening ear and support with not only this but any parenting related issue.  

Contact Parenting NI

You can give us a call on 0808 8010 722

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“That’s not true!” – Parents Guide to Fake News

What is Fake News?

"Fake News" is not a term many of us would have been using 18 months ago. Despite the term's recent popularity, the idea of fake news is not a new one.  Governments and powerful individuals have spread information via mass communication in order to boost support for many years. However, in today's world it's increasingly difficult to tell what is real and what isn't.

It is especially hard for children who have not yet developed critical thinking skills which help them to separate truth from fiction. It is important for parents to talk to children and young people about real and fake news content. Having conversations about fake news is one of the ways parents can help combat the impact of these stories.

How Big is Our Fake News Problem?

The complex nature of what constitutes "fake news" and what is stories or ideas we don't agree with makes it almost impossible to quantify how much "fake" news children and young people see.

We do know that it is serious enough to be an issue. For example, 6.6 million people saw a video posted about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which incorrectly claimed that 42 people had died in one room (BBC, 2017). Using social media increases young people's likelihood of being exposed to fake news in one way or another.

Types of Fake News

Parody or joke sites

You could argue these are the least harmful of "Fake News" sites. Most of these sites make it pretty obvious that they are not real stories. The purpose of these stories could be to amuse people or they could annoy or "troll" a certain section of society.

While adults could identify these stories are satire, children and young people may struggle.

News Imposter Sites

These “fake news” stories make up the bulk of the fake news on the internet. These articles usually have intriguing titles to encourage you to click on them, which generates money for ads.

This type of fake news will be very familiar to you if you read real news on the internet often. Below the main story, and regularly camouflaged as real “related stories” are a list of seemingly alarming news stories.

An adult thinking critically would realise that this source was untrustworthy. However, a child or young person could easily be tricked. In addition, the most common place to see these aside from as ads are as shared stories on social media.

Fake Stories on Real Sources

This third and final type of fake news is perhaps the most insidious of all. These stories are fake but usually contain a grain of truth in order to trick otherwise reliable news websites to carry them. The purpose of these stories varies – sometimes it is a prank, others seek to influence the debate around an issue but they undermine the trust in all news sources.

These sorts of stories are the most difficult for parents to safeguard children and young people against, as one of the most reliable ways to dismantle fake news is by checking reliable news sources.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has a handy 8-step process which is quick, easy to understand and available to help distinguish fake from real news.

1. Consider the source – is it usually reliable and have you ever heard of them before?
2. Read Beyond – read the whole story, not just the headline
3. Check the author – are they a real person?
4. Look for supporting sources – fake news is less likely to have multiple verifying sources
5. Check the date – maybe it wasn’t fake news when it was posted but is it now?
6. Is it a joke? – teach children about how some of these articles are meant to be funny, and why people make jokes like this.
7. Check your own biases.
8. Ask the Experts – a teacher, a fact-checking website or tell children to ask you as a parent!

How to Talk to Children & Young People about "Fake News"

1. Ask your children about what they have heard to find out about what they already know.

2. You might want to consider where your young person gets their news from. If they are reading it on social media tell them not to rely on it too heavily for news.

3. Try and explain things in a simple and age appropriate way as possible. Explain that sometimes people may lie and why they might do that.

4. Listen and acknowledge – children often feel misrepresented or unhappy with the news they read. It is important to listen to what they are feeling, and respond.

5. Parents can also improve children’s media literacy during everyday activities. For example, if your child or young person watches a lot of Youtube videos, ask them what they know about who created them, and why. This is a simple and easy way to build up to a conversation about “fake” content.

If you are concerned about the impact "Fake News" has on your child ask for help!
Contact Parenting NI

You can give us a call on 0808 8010 722.

Media Literacy

Ask other parents how they talk to their children about it.

Speak to Teachers

Ask teachers about how they teach critical thinking skills in school.

Look Online

Look for reliable sources like the BBC, OFCOM and others.

Read the Report

Click here to download and read the full report.

Parents Guide: Children, Sugar and Snacking

Having a small snack between meals is a regular occurrence for children. But do you know how much sugar content is in the snacks you give your children?

The issue of children's sugar intake is one that is well publicised. This year has already seen many calls for reducing the amount of sugar children consume in the media; including a campaign from celebrity chef and father of five, Jamie Oliver, on banning sales of energy drinks to children. 

In this special feature, we explore the state of snacking and the challenges parents face in providing healthy snacks for their children.

A staggering 25% of children aged 2-15 are classified as overweight or obese. This is a serious and growing problem, which the World Health Organisation notes is a "double burden" due to health issues and obesity in childhood increasing the same risks in adulthood.

However it can be difficult to provide children, particularly young children, with snacks between meals that are both palatable and healthy.  A recent study by Public Health England found that primary-aged children have up to 3 sugary snacks per day.

It goes without saying, that most parents are aware of the risks that being overweight or obese give their children. No parent seeks to let their children become overweight or are apathetic to it. The difficulty for parents lies in finding healthy alternatives to snacks, particularly for younger children or fussy eaters.

"Snacks are important for young children since they can only eat small amounts of food at a time, and can’t wait many hours between meals."

The problem is not with snacking itself but rather with the content of those snacks. Fat and sugar content of foods consumed at snack times are a serious cause of concern for children and parents.

The State of Snacking

Current World Health Organisation advice suggests that around 5% of our daily calories should come from sugars. For a boy aged 10, that works out to about 100 calories a day and slightly less for a girl of the same age. 1g of sugar has about 4 calories, so children of this age should have no more than 25g of sugar per day. One can of Coca-Cola has about 10.6g/42kCal (sugar calories only), or almost half the total a child should have per day. When you add in a fun-size Mars bar at 8.g/32kCal you are rapidly approaching the daily total with just a small snack.

Additionally, many children start their day off with a sharp intake of sugar from popular breakfast cereals.

- Frosties (11g/44kCal per bowl from sugar only)
- Coco Pops (10.5g/42kCal from sugar only)
- Cheerios (6.2g/24.8kCal from sugar only)

This takes up a significant chunk of a child’s daily sugar amount. It quickly adds up when combined with a mid-morning and after school snack. That's without including any sugars in their lunch of dinner. It is easy to see how parents can accidentally allow children to go over their daily limits in this way.

The most deceptive are those snacks that seem to be marketed as healthy. Such as yogurts, fruit juices and cereal bars. At first glance seem like easy and healthy alternatives to candy or fizzy drinks. In reality, these snacks can be just as full of sugar.

- One pot of Original Strawberry flavour Yoplait, contains 18g of sugar (72kCal)
- A 156g Tracker Peanut bar, there is 7.3g (29.2kCal)
- A 200ml carton of Apple Juice has 20.7g (82.8kCal)

Ironically, this can mean that a well-intentioned parent could swap their child’s Coke and Mars bar with a yogurt and apple juice and increase their sugar intake.

These figures are not as simple as they initially seem. There are many types of sugar, broadly categorised into Brown, White and Liquid. There is also a difference between naturally occurring sugars (such as Fructose in fruit) and added sugar. Additionally, there is a massive range of words, phrases and terms associated with sugar in food. Even the most conscientious and health-conscious parents can struggle telling dextrose for lactose, or simple and complex carbohydrates.

Different types of sugar affect bodies differently. For example, glucose is the most basic form of sugar, is essential for energy in the body. All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body to provide energy to cells. It is therefore the epitome of “simple” sugars. Beyond this, there are natural sugars and added sugars. While too much of either can bring problems, the primary concern for parents should be the amount of added sugars, such as sucrose.

“Check for ingredients ending in "ose" — that's the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose.”

The good news is that levels of sugar consumption per capita in the UK are falling.  In 2014 the Institute of Economic Affairs noted that per capita consumption had fallen by 16% between 1992 and 2014. Additionally, some companies have begun to reduce the total amount of sugars they add to their products. For example Kellogg’s announced in November of 2017 that it would cut the sugar added to Coco Pops, Rice Krispies, and Rice Krispies Multi-Grain Shapes by up to 40%.

Despite this, levels of obesity and childhood obesity have been rising. Dealing with weight issues in children is not a one-step solution – it involves increasing exercise, education and diet. Parents can help their children by choosing healthy and less sugary snacks for them. Snacks are not necessarily getting more sugary, but increasingly parents feel unable to determine what foods have “the right amount” of sugar.

"Our child just doesn't like healthy food."
"We're tired of fighting with the kids at meal times about eating their vegetables."
"I want to make sure they eat something!"
"Just let them have sweets, you have to let them enjoy their childhood."
"I like making my children happy with treats."
"I've tried to try and get my child to eat fruit and veg, I don't know what else to do."

Whilst somewhat flippant, these are some common reasons why parents give their children snacks. It is not that parents think they are healthier; it is that they struggle to find a compromise solution that works for them. It isn’t that they think it is good to give children excessive amount of sugary snacks; it is that some snacks that are marketed as “healthy” contain excessive sugars.

Research conducted on behalf of Yazoo in 2017 found that while 77% of parents felt guilty about the amount of sugary snacks they provided to their children, British parents give their children unhealthy snacks 21 times a week on average. So-called “pester power”, or children asking for such items can have a dramatic impact on parents. This is particularly true for parents who are stressed or time-limited in other ways, such as long working hours or during times of emotional distress such as parental separation.

Other factors include parents having less time to prepare or cook healthy snacks. In addition, the range of snacks available and children's desire for them creates an attractive solution. It can also be difficult for parents to seek support with healthy alternatives due to being fearful of being judged for the food choices they make.

31% of parents underestimate their child's weight

In a 2008 study, 75% of parents underestimated the size of an overweight child, while 50% underestimated the size of an obese child. Even more surprising is that a similar study found that healthcare professionals had nearly the same difficulty. Parents therefore should not feel shame for not recognising the issue sooner; instead, they should be more aware that of the issue, its causes and most crucially of support that is available to counteract it.


What to do

The issue of helping your children to snack healthier, and to reduce sugar intake can be confronting. However, there are a few suggestions that parents can implement in order to make a start towards improving the quality of the snacks they provide.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that parents simply do not keep unhealthy snacks in the house. Children as less likely to ask for such items if they are not freely available – and via this solution, snacks and desserts that are unhealthy become special treats rather than daily food.

The NHS’s Change4life campaign notes that sugary drinks are often the biggest individual source of added sugars to children’s diets. As such, they suggest a swap to diet versions, no added-sugars versions (such as dilutes), low-fat milk or water.

New South Wales in Australia’s government makes the suggestion that parents ought to set limits on the number of sugary snacks for children. They also state that parents should explain why these limits are being imposed, and Parenting NI always suggests communication is important.

Any changes, particularly if they are significant or if your children are older should involve the children. Such strategies, where the parent involves the child and explains the reasons why they are doing what they are doing are more likely to succeed.

It is never too early or too late to improve the nutritional value of the snacks provided to your children. If you need help or support, or want further information regarding how to improve, reach out to one of the many organisations below who can assist you.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Parent’s Guide: Children & Video Games

Is your child a gamer? Would you like to know more about what your children are playing?

In this special feature, we look at the research and offer some guidance on things to be aware of when it comes to your children’s gaming.

Playing video games has been a popular form of entertainment since the 1970’s. However, has technology has developed and advanced so too has the impact and influence of video games.

Video games can address and explore a wide range of issues just as other forms of media like books, television and films do. But parents are rightly concerned when the content of games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto include theft, terrorism and murder. Additionally, there are new and emergent problems such as simulated and real gambling and online gaming with strangers.

“Do video games have a negative impact and should I stop my child from playing them?”

There have been a wide range of studies on video game content, however as technology moves at breakneck speed it is easy to get left behind when it comes to advice and guidance. This puts parents in a difficult situation when weighing up protecting their children from potentially harmful content or inhibiting on their children’s social life. 

The Facts… 

Violence
There is no absolute consensus regarding the impact of video games on children’s health and development. Some studies suggest that children who are exposed to violence in media may become numb to it and show more aggressive behaviour. They also say that younger children and those with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties may be more influenced by violent images.

On the other hand, many researchers dispute this idea that there is a link between violence in video games and violent behaviour in children. Instead, they suggest that the link between violent content and aggressive behaviour is reliant upon the child’s character. Author and clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore noted:

“People with a personality constellation of being 1) easily upset (high neuroticism), 2) showing little concern for other people’s feelings (low agreeableness), and 3) having a tendency to break rules or act without thinking (low conscientiousness) are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of violent video games”

Additionally, a 2017 study in the Netherlands found that:

“Exposure to ‘violent’ video games at age 9 was not predictive of aggression or reduced prosocial behaviors one year later. Overall gaming, likewise, was unrelated to most mental health issues including attention problems or reduced social functioning, or total mental health difficulties”

It is difficult for parents who are not gamers or have little understanding of it to know whether the games their children ask for are age appropriate from the titles alone. With names that only make sens in context, such as “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” or “Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle”, it is unreasonable to expect parents to know if the content contained in these titles would be suitable for a 7, 10 or 15 year old child. Additionally, every child is different which therefore makes it even more challenging to decide on suitability. Just as with films, what one 12 year old might find exciting or funny may make another anxious or frightened. Truthfully, with regards to violent content in video games only the parent themselves knows their child well enough to make a choice.

Spending

While the majority of concern regarding video games relates to violent imagery, as games have matured the problems they present have developed as well. Recently, there has been a great deal of concern regarding the use of real money in video games to simulate gambling. The most recent example of this was exhibited in “Star Wars Battlefront II”, while Star Wars has a PEGI rating of 16, the use of Star Wars characters makes it popular and much desired by very young children. While the content of the game is fairly tame (mild fantasy violence), worries have been raised regarding “lootboxes” in game.

The concept of “lootboxes”, or extra paid content in games is a difficult subject for parents to understand, even when they have some experience of video games themselves. Lootboxes are a form of “Downloadable Content”, or “DLC”. DLC can take the form of major changes or additions to games, or minor cosmetic upgrades, and is released separately from the core game. It must be paid for separately, and is designed to prolong the life cycle of the game.

The issue with DLC like lootboxes is the manner in which it simulates gambling, in particular slot machines. A player pays real-money for a lootbox (in the case of children, this is typically parents money) and receives a number of randomised items. The issue is that the item which the player wishes to get – a character or weapon, for example – is not guaranteed to be in the box. An example is shown below:

The problems with this system can be seen for adults, but the effect of promoting such pseudo-gambling behaviour to children is potentially dangerous. The addition of popular children’s characters such as Luke Skywalker or Yoda to the mix only increases the issue. The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts has vigorously denied that these mechanics are gambling, stating:

“Creating a fair and fun game experience is of critical importance to EA. The crate mechanics of Star Wars Battlefront 2 are not gambling”

However, this has been contested by a number of jurisdictions. In Belgium, The Netherlands and the US State of Hawaii, formal investigations have opened into whether these mechanics are gambling.

Regardless of the exact legal nature of specific mechanics, the simple existence of the potential to spend vast sums of money (Star Wars Battlefront II, for example, could potential cost a whopping £1,600 to unlock every aspect of the game) is deeply worrying for parents. Whereas in the 80’s and 90’s, a child might at worst ask for a £60 or £70 game, today’s children potentially could end up spending much larger sums. This concern is particularly acute for children or young people who have their own money (such as teenagers).

Strangers

Much like the internet at large, video games which are played online offer a number of exciting opportunities. Children could benefit from playing with friends, especially when they are far away geographically. Team-building and co-working can help to foster good behaviours and strategies in children. A report by RMIT University in Australia found that children who played online games every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

Nonetheless, there is danger of so-called “grooming” by adults of children playing online games. This process operates similar to groom on social media platforms. Children are connected to strangers and adults online via video games, and this allows a potential for abuse. In January 2017, Adam Isaac was convicted of a range of criminal activities involving children he met through popular online game “Minecraft”.

The Good News…

Despite the concerns regarding video games, it is important for parents to recognise that there are distinct and unique benefits for children of playing video games. These are especially pronounced in games that have an educational aspect to them. Research professor Peter Gray Ph.D wrote that:

“Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in on-line video games.”

The American Psychological Association published an extensive report in 2013 which identified a litany of potential benefits for children associated with the playing of video games. Video games were linked to improvements in spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception in children.

Additionally, video games can help children socially, as up to 70% of gamers play with friends in the same room and this co-play activity helps to improve prosocial activities that help with social development. In an increasingly isolated and anti-social environment that children operate in, video gaming often provides an outlet for social play.

Help is at hand

Ratings
Thankfully, parents are not alone in this. In addition to voluntary services (such as the Parenting NI helpline), video games in Europe are rated by PEGI. This rating, which must be listed on the box of a game, or on the store page if the game is listed online, gives an idea of what sort of content is included. The criteria are listed below:


PEGI 3: The content of games given this rating is considered suitable for all age groups. Some violence in a comical context (typically Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoon-like forms of violence) is acceptable. The child should not be able to associate the character on the screen with real life characters, they should be totally fantasy. The game should not contain any sounds or pictures that are likely to scare or frighten young children. No bad language should be heard.

PEGI 7: Any game that would normally be rated at 3 but contains some possibly frightening scenes or sounds may be considered suitable in this category.

PEGI 12: Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.

PEGI 16: This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16.

PEGI 18: The adult classification is applied when the level of violence reaches a stage where it becomes a depiction of gross violence and/or includes elements of specific types of violence. Gross violence is the most difficult to define since it can be very subjective in many cases, but in general terms it can be classed as the depictions of violence that would make the viewer feel a sense of revulsion.

PEGI also lists a number of reasons for their rating, including drug use, discrimination or violence. Reading and understanding the ratings for the games your children are playing is highly recommended. PEGI is a legal mechanism, which is backed up by the government. This means that retailers must make every attempt to prevent children under the suggested age from buying the games – however, it is not illegal for children to play a game they are underage for.

Parental Settings
In addition to regulation and ratings, many game companies and publishers have installed parental settings and controls built into games consoles or games themselves. The best example recently is the parental control on the Nintendo Switch. The Switch has a sophisticated array of controls, including:

  • Control of total play times;
  • Deciding which games to allow, and which are blocked entirely;
  • Which online features are allowed

You can control this via an app installed on a tablet or phone. While Nintendo has been particularly proactive in this regard, most games consoles have at least some level of parental controls.

However, these features are almost never on by default. As such, it is essential that parents seek advice and familiarise themselves with parental controls before giving the console to the child.

Talk
As with almost every parenting issue, the single most effective tool to combat the negatives of video games is good parent to child communication. Particularly with older children, it is important that parents take the time to talk about the games their children are playing. Talking to your child about games can help you understand more about their content and voicing your concerns ensures that your child understands the risks. 

It is important that your child feels that they can come to you if something happens that worries or frightens them. They are less likely to do so if they think that you will not “get it”. By chatting about what they are doing before something happens a parent can build their child’s resilience and ensure that they talk to you when things go wrong.

In conclusion, there is no settled opinion regarding the risks versus benefits of children playing games. There are certainly issues, relating to the appropriateness of content for children, potential spending of money and online activity. However, there are equal and opposite suggestions that playing of video games can be highly beneficial for children.

Like many parenting problems, there is no simple one-size fits all solution to video games. The best and only manner in which parents can take a level of control is by taking a proactive interest in the games that their children play. While the world of video games can be particularly opaque and difficult for parents to access, particularly if they are not tech-savvy themselves, taking a level of interest is the best way to protect children.

Managing Christmas Stress

 

Christmas can be a wonderful time of year filled with lots of celebrations and fun for families, but it can also be very stressful for many parents. Parents can feel the pressure of managing their children’s expectations alongside managing the financial stresses that the time of year brings.

Local parenting support charity Parenting NI say that the pressures of meeting children’s expectations, managing children’s behaviour and dealing with separation make this time of year really difficult for a lot of families in Northern Ireland. The charity is encouraging parents to seek support if they are finding they are struggling to cope over the festive period.

Chief Executive at Parenting NI, Charlene Brooks said,

“There are a number of things Parenting NI would encourage parents to do to try and limit the stresses and expense of the holiday period. Expectations around Christmas are often high with so many putting an emphasis on the ‘perfect’ family Christmas. We would suggest to parents, as difficult as this can be, to not to get drawn into what others are spending or doing and do what is right for your family. Try to plan by writing a list of everything you need and setting a budget, most importantly, try and stick to your budget.

“Talk to your children about the value of things and explain that it’s not all about getting presents, that Christmas time is a good time to spend together and make memories. Good communication is so important within a family, if you are feeling the pressure don’t be afraid to ask for help. The less stressed you are as a parent, the less stressed your children will feel.

Separation is another big issue for a lot of families Parenting NI support, for parents who don’t have access to their children over the festive period it is particularly distressing and isolating. Parents who are struggling in general and / or want support with managing separation over Christmas please get in touch with Parenting NI on freephone 0808 8010 722.”


Separation at Christmas

Family breakdown is never easy, but for parents who are separated or separating Christmas can be a particularly difficult time. It can also be a very sad and frustrating time for parents who may not have access to their children. 

Communication is key when it comes to managing separation at any time but particularly at Christmas, and hopefully you will or have been able to come to an informal arrangement with your ex partner to enable you to see your children and spend time with them over the holidays.

Parenting NI understand that it can cause parents a lot of distress, so here are a few tips on coping with separation at Christmas:

Try not to worry about the “Perfect Family Christmas”
At Christmas we are bombarded with imagery which depicts what media portrays to be the ideal Christmas. It helps to remind yourself that there isn’t a perfect way to celebrate Christmas and try not to put any unrealistic expectations on yourself.

Make the most of the time you do have together
Any time that you do spend with your children over the holidays is special. Christmas shouldn’t be a competition between you and your ex where you try to outdo each other with presents for the children. Of course you will want to give your children gifts at Christmas but spending quality time together and having fun is just as important. This doesn’t have to mean expensive trips out either, doing crafts or playing games together at home is also great fun.

Put your children first
Regardless of your feelings towards your ex, try to think of what is best for your children. Research from family law organisation Resolution, found that 88% of children said it was important to them that their parents did not make them feel like they had to choose between their mum and dad. Whilst it is heartbreaking to not be seeing your child on Christmas Day try not to criticise the other parent too much in front of the children, no matter how angry you feel.

Don’t bottle up your feelings
Although it is important to remain positive for your children it is important for your own emotional wellbeing to have someone to talk to. If you are feeling upset and alone try talking to a family member or friend about how you feel. The Parents Regional Helpline will be available for periods during the holidays as well so if you would like a bit of support you can give us a call or chat to us on Web Chat. Details of opening hours can be found here.

If you don’t have access to your children over Christmas…
Make arrangements with your family or friends.  If anyone close to you is in the same situation, why not organise to see them; volunteer or invite them round for lunch so that you will not be by yourself.