Managing information overload in children

Do you remember a time when Channel O and MTV, both international music television channels were considered perversive and morally compromising channels?
These were the channels parents had to worry about, which makes me nostalgic for the sheer innocence and simplicity of parenting of those days.
Today, a parent has to watch out not just for ‘foreign’ programming but all local content programmes, social media, phones and tablets that have been created with the purpose of getting the user hooked.

According to an online psychology magazine Psychology Today, “What makes tablets and iPhones so great is the dozens of stimuli at your fingertips, and the ability to process multiple actions simultaneously. This is exactly what young brains do not need.”

Unlike a mother reading a story to a child, for example, a smartphone-told story spoon-feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader.

“Instead of taking time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualise complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a storyline, children who read stories via their smartphones get lazy, mentally. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.”

In addition to weakening the cognitive muscles, parents are worried about the moral effects of unregulated information their children access. Holly Okwi, a mother of three, decided to ban daytime television at home when she heard her five-year-old daughter singing the song, Nkwatako. “There she was, innocently singing and gyrating just as she had watched the singer do it on TV.

It turns out that the househelp loved to watch Luganda channels, which she watched all day, together with the children. However, some of the content was not appropriate for the children. I was worried about what other things they had watched in my absence and how they had been able to interpret them without my guidance,” says Okwi.

With easy access to social media, TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, it can get overwhelming trying to manage the amount and quality of information consumed by children.

To make matters worse, most of the information being aggressively pumped into their lives is irrelevant, time-consuming, and often negative.
Fred Mugisha, a counselling psychologist at Serenity Centre, Kampala, advises parents to make a deliberate and conscious decision to manage the information their children are exposed to.

“Children are like sponges. They will absorb everything they are exposed to. So expose them to what is important for their growth and development but in limited amounts because this is one of those situations when too much of a good thing actually becomes harmful,” he explains. Too much information is what experts term as cognitive overload and children are growing up with it. Science reveals our brains can process only so much information at a time. After a certain point, less information is absorbed, which can lead to poor decision-making.

Some studies even suggest that the part of our brains that controls logical decisions, essentially turns off when faced with too much information.
It is a reality that we cannot control what information is available but we can help our children sieve and make better choices.

Teaching moment
“One way of exercising this control is turning every moment into a teaching moment. Interpret whatever information your child has access to, teach about values and priorities in life, in your own way, because children get to associate with the things they are constantly exposed to,” Mugisha advises. Ruth Matoya, a family counsellor, recommends that parents and caregivers should live exemplary lives because the children are watching and learning through interaction.

“From the way you live your lives, children are always curious to understand some of the things we do as parents. Be ready to answer their questions honestly and in a way that is age appropriate, because if they are unsatisfied with the information you give, they will go looking for it elsewhere,” Matoya explains.

Apps and search engines
The fact that children get information from many sources and from hundreds of people through numerous channels is unquestionable. Therefore, choose those channels carefully. Care to learn about the school policy and the general environment before you enroll your child in any school. Explore the kinds of apps and search engines your child frequents and block the ‘bad ones’. Most of the information children are exposed to is usually harmful.

Counsellor’s Take
Another way of managing the information your child is consuming is by creating an environment that encourages free exchange of information.

“Ensure that your child feels free to talk to you about anything, without fear. Most parents have trouble creating this kind of environment because they fear this kind of openness might muddle the lines and thus compromise their authority. But usually the opposite is true. When a child is not scared of you but genuinely respects you, they are less likely to seek information from compromising sources such as the internet or peers,” Mugisha explains.

Experts also advise parents to give their children an information break, just like Okwi did by banning daytime television.
Set aside time when the children are free from TV, homework or video games to just relax their brains.

Some studies indicate that a daily practice of even 10 minutes of such breaks can change the structure of the brain for the better. Researchers believe that the longer one can stretch information breaks, the more the benefits.


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