We live in the rapidly moving age of technology, but what is “e-parenting”? It might sound a bit sci-fi: robots managing children instead of human parents. But what it actually refers to is how parents manage their children’s interaction with technology. We’re now so accustomed to technology that we don’t consider just how much our daily lives rely on it, starting with our Octopus cards. At school, children are now using iPads from a young age as an integrated part of their learning experience – and technology will continue to impact education. We can expect that our children will also need to have a basic education – to say the least – in how to code, too. But what about at home? From just 12 months of age or so, children might reach for their parents’ iPhone after a photo is taken, in order to view it immediately. They might even swipe through the camera roll – it’s something they learn from so young an age. Skype and other internet video calling apps have become a precious lifeline, connecting children to their hardworking parents or overseas relatives. Tablets have become a method for learning and for entertaining younger children, with a range of apps that teach colours, numbers, letters, and spelling, or tell stories. Then there’s the other side of technology, which most parents struggle to manage or even dislike outright: games, social networking and simply too much screen time. We don’t want our children to go goggle-eyed in front of a screen; we want them to learn, run around and play in a more traditional sense, too. And since these technology developments aren’t going anywhere, it’s vital that parents get a grip on how to approach and manage technology in the home, because unlike us, our children will be “tech natives”. A good place to start is to recognise that it’s not all bad. Not all games are bad, either. Minecraft, where players build worlds, is the best-selling game to date, despite its pixelated style graphics – which might be more advanced than Paperboy on the Commodore 64, but which still have a certain old-world touch to them. So it’s not necessarily the high-end CGI that wows children, but the play factor. And if the play specifications are well thought out, then it actually might be as good – and as educational – as it’s proving to be. Play specifications are what toy and gaming companies centre their products around: they are the unseen design that turns a product into a hit. Think of Lego. It looks simple, but it gives users the ability to imagine, play and create. At design conferences, Lego Serious Play offers audiences a set of six pieces to prove that the matrix of possible outcomes is endless, because it’s the creativity behind it that counts. On a very simple level, Minecraft works the same way, but it’s computer-based and contains a range of problem-solving tasks. And guess what: there’s a school-ready version of Minecraft called MinecraftEdu, especially for schools. Christine Brendle, founder and publisher of Kids Dailies, a digital, age-appropriate newspaper for children, talks about her experience with her teenage daughter: “It concerned me how much she liked Minecraft, but she took me through the worlds she was building and showed me how she could co-operate with other players.” With her best friend now living in another part of Hong Kong, the girls found a game they could enjoy despite living further apart. Diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, Brendle’s daughter found the game easy to concentrate on, as it allowed her to communicate, imagine and work as part of a team. So, rather than being concerned about screens or gaming in general, a more specific approach might benefit parents better. As a digital publisher of children’s content, this is something Brendle has thought about a lot. Describing her own family as “pretty wired”, she says: “I tend to view technology as a positive enabler, but we care about the quality of the material. Most of our reading, listening and film-watching happens on devices, as well as communicating with family around the world,” she says. They do not have a TV at home. With a 13-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, Brendle can recall the days of the Gameboy, which her son wasn’t particularly interested in. “When they were younger, the focus was on the type and quality of content and the context of it. Children are naturally curious so technology can offer a huge window of opportunity – and a lot of rubbish,” she points out. And it’s this that parents need to be wary of, rather than the vehicle the information arrives in. Brendle’s advice includes carefully managing protective filters on web browsers (and paying attention to in-app purchase settings on smart devices!), and encouraging children to use their own judgment. This represents a good chance to teach them about self-trust and responsibility. “They can think for themselves if they should leave a page or come and talk to us about anything they have seen that makes them uncomfortable or afraid,” she says. “I do believe that tablets allow very young children to play and learn independently, which is pleasurable, valid time spent for a child.” Of course, moderation and physical play time away from tech are still key. Rules in the Brendle home include no tech devices at the dinner table, no screens for her teenage daughter after 7pm, except for a Kindle, and no phones or beeping devices in bedrooms at night. For those with younger children, navigating their relationship with technology can seem trickier. For social worker and parental education trainer, Chris Man, a moderate approach seems best. But at the moment, his children are only five years-old and 16 months. “I communicate with my wife by phone, e-mail and WhatsApp but I always talk to my children face-to-face,” he says. His eldest son was already three-and- a-half when he played his first game – an English puzzle app, which he took to naturally. “I didn’t teach him, but he was quite skilful,” Man recalls. Radio host and film director, Benny Lau, has a different approach for his two children, who are currently two-and-a-half years old and seven months. “I work from home, at the computer – so while my wife doesn’t use technology in front of our children [apart from phone calls], I do,” he says. Lau has a stricter approach because he believes that socialising and human relations are most important for his children. “I experienced with my daughter that when I do activities with her she really learns and remembers, but if it is from an app, she doesn’t. I think learning is stronger when it’s human-to-human.” Having seen some young children who just want to play on a device rather than talk to their parents or family, he worries that human interaction is belittled in the face of technology. “We used to play on our iPads, check Facebook and so on. Now, we really don’t use social media much because we want to set this example for our kids,” he explains. Man’s more moderate approach still takes into account habit-building and brain development. “I don’t often allow my son to watch YouTube videos or play games at home, even though they watch videos at kindergarten,” he says, explaining that he has a maximum 30-minute rule. “I am very strict because I do have concerns over issues like socialising with people – but my son is good. I give him a five-minute reminder and he will turn off the game by himself when time is up. We never go beyond the limit.” Setting habits like these now, sets good intentions for the future – and Man is well aware that electronic devices will continue to be important for communications and work – an increasingly integrated factor in human lives. Likewise, Lau is also setting good boundaries. Currently, his older daughter rarely even asks to see a photo after it’s been taken and when she does, they try to avoid encouraging her to look at the device. “I know it will be harder to manage her relationship with these devices when she goes to school but I believe that if we build a good foundation now, she will be okay because she will have already have good communication skills and her own values,” Lau says. Regardless of approach, one of the most important factors in managing the use of tech in your home is consistency. It is confusing for a child if they are allowed more free access to apps and YouTube when they are young, to soothe them when they are tired or during trickier social gatherings – and then to be stricter with them once they reach school age. As children grow, parents need to be able navigate new waters, too, like the issues of bullying or stranger danger, online and not just in the real world. And screen time will lengthen once they get to secondary school, due to homework. Brendle’s children are encouraged to ask themselves: “Is this engaging me? Am I learning, working or is it relaxation time?” They are allowed unlimited time for schoolwork, but limited time for fun tech activities. Another good idea is to talk to your children about what they are doing on their devices, making it a point of conversation and inclusion, not an activity of exclusion or a convenient babysitter. One thing Brendle, Man and Lau all have in common, despite their varying approaches, is a focus on socialising and other activities, including sports and time outdoors. “When we have family holidays, we don’t really use tech much,” Brendle says. Man and his family enjoy playing board games, including chess, and Lau keeps a tradition that Sundays are for family outings. So perhaps the age of tech doesn’t have to mean the end of time for direct family communication.