Monthly Archives: October 2017

Taking tech away won’t fix behaviour issues

Do you take away your teenager’s phone to manage their behaviour? Maybe when they arrive home late from a party or receive a bad report card?

Confiscating, time-limiting or permitting additional access to technology has become a popular parenting strategy. Surveys show that 65 per cent of American parents with teenagers confiscate phones or remove internet privileges as a form of punishment.

It’s no longer simply a tool of distraction – technology access has become a means of behavioural control. But my recent research suggests that this approach might not be the best idea.

I’ve spoken with 50 Australian families with 118 children aged 1-18 about this issue. The data will be published in 2018. Among my sample, a family with two children owns on average six to eight devices. Some children also had devices from a very young age – the youngest was a one-year-old who received a tablet for her first birthday. The youngest mobile phone owner was six years old.

My qualitative investigation suggests that using technology as a bargaining chip can have adverse effects. It may impact the trust you build with your child and how they use technology.

The effect on younger children

For children 12 years and younger, I saw that parents often use technology as a reward for good behaviour. For example, allowing a two-year-old time on a tablet for using the potty “successfully”.

While it’s important to recognise a child’s achievements, kids can begin to associate technology with being “good” and making their parents proud.

As one eight-year-old explained while sitting on the couch with an iPad either side of him; “I’m a really good boy, that’s why I have two iPads!”

This strategy also places emphasis on “use” as opposed to “quality use”.

Quality technology use is commonly understood as use that emphasises creativity and problem-solving. It’s important not to encourage kids to think about screen time in terms of gratification alone. Instead, it should enhance learning, help develop one’s sense of self, or facilitate positive connections.

The effect on teenagers

In my study, parents with teens often removed or limited technology use as a punishment. For example, taking a phone from a 13-year-old because he was rude.

In separate discussions, parents and teens talked about the backlash to such actions. While parents often interpreted their protests as the punishment “working”, teenagers in my study explained it differently.

If their phone is taken away, they often withdrew from their parents. Instead of focusing on what they’d done wrong, they fixated on not having a phone and finding someone else’s to use in the meantime.

On top of this, teenagers characterised it as a privacy issue. One girl explained; “I don’t know what my mum does with my phone when she has it. She probably searches through it!”

Worryingly, some teens interpreted their punishment in ways that could compromise the important messages that parents give children about safety on the internet.

Research shows that healthy family communication is crucial in reducing risky online behaviours such as cyberbullying, contact with a potential predator, or exposure to sexually explicit material.

In response to her phone being confiscated, for example, one 15-year-old expressed what many teenagers told me; “I don’t tell my parents much now about what happens to me because I don’t want my phone taken off me.”

Three key points for parents

Our relationship with technology is complicated, so how should it be treated by parents?

Technology shouldn’t be used to fix all problems

Children told me that “the punishment needs to fit the crime!”

Using technology to encourage appropriate behaviour is not the answer unless it is in response to a technology-related incident. Say, a teenager bullying someone online.

If the incident has nothing to do with internet use, use a strategy that will help them understand and improve on the actual behaviour of concern.

Be a positive technology role model

Being a positive technology role model for children means encouraging quality technology use.

For example, setting aside some phone-free time each day so you can be “in the moment” with your child. If you watch online videos with them, make the clips useful, like learning how to design a new garden. Positive interactions can also be demonstrated, such as playing online chess with a friend.

When the punishment doesn’t work

My research suggests that there’s a point when using technology to manage behaviour simply doesn’t work anymore.

It can get too difficult to remove the smartphone each time your child needs to do their homework, for example. It could even cause animosity or unnecessary aggravation.

It’s important to develop a range of strategies that guide child behaviour. These do not always have to be in response to bad behaviour and they do not always need to be extreme. Instead, they could be used to nudge and guide your child towards comprehending their own actions.

We need to shift the focus away from parenting that relies on threats and rewards, to one that nurtures meaningful parent-child and child-technology relationships.

By Western Sydney University Technology and Learning researcher Joanne Orlando

Original article published by the Conversation.


Testosterone surges – fact or fiction?

The idea that four-year-old boys have a spurt of testosterone is often used to explain challenging behaviour at this age.

But how did this idea come about? Is there any truth in it? And if not, what else could explain their behaviour?

Psychologist and author Stephen Biddulph is often credited with being the source of the idea that four-year-old boys have a testosterone spurt.

Although he mentioned it in his bestselling book Raising Boys, he was writing about someone else’s work:

According to Professor Mitchell Harman in the US Department of Aging, boys undergo a testosterone burst at age four… Not all researchers have agreed with this finding though, so it remains controversial.

Biddulph said Professor Harman wrote about this for an article in the men’s magazine Esquire in 1999 and “stood by these findings” when contacted in 2015.

So, what does the evidence say?

As a researcher and adolescent endocrinologist, who specialises in puberty hormones, I can say there is no evidence this testosterone spurt exists. Many studies of hormones in boys in peer-reviewed journals confirm this.

Raised levels of testosterone are not possible when testes (where testosterone is made) are small and levels of the hormone that stimulates testosterone production is low.

The only time when a four-year-old’s testosterone level is high is in a serious and uncommon condition called precocious puberty, where boys enter puberty and their testicles enlarge much earlier than usual.

Yes, testosterone rises, but not at this age

There are rises in testosterone during a boy’s development, which coincide with major brain development. But these don’t happen at the age of four.

Testosterone first increases to puberty-like levels in boys during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. This testosterone is responsible for the development of the penis and scrotum, a process known as the masculinisation of external genitalia.

The second testosterone increase occurs in the first six months or so of life. This mini-puberty results in boys’ genitalia briefly looking more prominent, which many parents notice.

Puberty is the third and final rise in testosterone, with levels increasing 10- to 20-fold over two to three years. Puberty is a time of major physical growth accompanied by significant behaviour changes, clearly influenced by brain development.

Yes, there are hormone changes, but not testosterone

There are hormone changes starting at around five to six years in both sexes in a period known as adrenarche. Perhaps this has also contributed to the confusion.

Adrenarche is the maturation of part of the adrenal glands where hormones similar to, but much weaker than, testosterone are made. Their most common effect is body odour. However, researchers don’t know why exactly boys and girls have this phase. And no-one has yet seen any clear effects on childhood behaviour.

No, testosterone doesn’t spurt

Use of the word “spurt” to describe testosterone production is also incorrect.

Testosterone does not spurt at any time of life. The word “spurt” creates a sense of rapidity and urgency, giving testosterone a reputation in childhood it does not deserve. Instead, when testosterone levels rise in puberty, it increases gradually at first, then accelerates in mid to late puberty.

So, what else can explain behaviour?

So is there an alternative explanation for boys’ behaviour at this age, which parents regularly report?

We see differences in boys’ and girls’ brains and behaviour well before puberty. Rises in testosterone in the womb and during the mini-puberty in the first six months of life likely explain these.

Studies that look at behaviour in four to five-year-olds tend to focus on play and social interactions, because these are what children this age do most of the time.

Such studies show boys and girls this age generally have different ways of playing and communicating. Boys’ play is generally more physical, engaging with mobile toys or building structures. Girls generally have more socially interactive play, and are more articulate.

Interestingly, girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, when they are exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb, tend to have more “rough and tumble” play styles, consistent with a testosterone effect on early brain development.

So, how might being four or five change boys’ behaviour?

At this age, children learn how to interact with others, understand another’s needs, share, and to deal with new and unfamiliar situations.

So, children must learn to regulate their own emotions, like fear, concern, upset and anger.

When children don’t do this, we see the emotional outbursts, which can be explosive. Children can struggle to either understand or articulate why they lost control of their emotions. Boys may respond more physically and be less able to articulate what happened.

Learning how to regulate their emotions is an important skill for children to develop. Parents can model good emotional regulation, make sure children have regular daily routines, enough time to practice play and enough sleep. Praising positive behaviour and not overreacting to minor attention-seeking misbehaviour also helps.

We shouldn’t blame hormones for children’s behaviour. Instead, we need to better understand those behaviours.

For instance, persistent and distressing behaviours in a child may signal underlying anxieties, reaction to family stresses, which are felt but not understood, or be a result of adversities when they were younger. So, if you are concerned, seek professional advice.

For all children, we need to prioritise time to play. That could mean space, action and permission to be noisy and boisterous.


By University of Sydney Adolescent Medicine Medical Foundation chair Kate Steinbeck. 

Original article published by the Conversation as Health Check: do boys really have a testosterone spurt at age four?


mental health

Mental health check ins help ease struggles

Mental illness can be an isolating, very lonely battle for boys who may struggle to voice their feelings to trusted family or friends.

The recent R U OK? Day and International Mental Health Day last week are key strategies to get conversations started about the state of mental health. Where are we at? Do we need help? Does someone we know need a helping hand? Is something not quite right?

R U OK? says with so many Australians effected by mental health challenges, starting the conversation with boys as soon as possible is key to opening communication channels.

“With many of us effected by mental illness, a stressful event, loss, peer pressure, study stresses, bullying, parental separation – we need to start the conversation as soon as possible,” a spokesperson for R U OK? said.

“We all go through tough times and the younger we are when we learn how to support people by asking them if they’re ok, the easier it makes the pathway to getting support and help,” she said.

R U OK? encourages starting conversations about mental health when someone has a “gut feeling” that something is not quite right with a mate or family member.

“Be kind, be aware and always trust your gut instinct,” the spokesperson said.

She said there were usually signs someone was not acting their “usual self”.

“Maybe their friend is more quiet than usual, perhaps they’re not involving themselves in activities they once enjoyed, they could even be angry or lashing out for what might seem like no reason,” she added.

“When issues like this raise their head, it tends to mean that person is struggling with something significant and they need help – a listening ear, a safe space with a safe person to open up to can be invaluable.”

Be aware the person struggling may not open up the first time they are asked.

“It can be scary to admit you are having a tough time and it can be tricky to know where to start. A lot of times boys in particular feel like they need to be strong or maintain a tough outer shell because in many ways society promotes the view that men should be tough and being vulnerable can be seen as weakness.”

“Not true, and R U OK? and our team of ambassadors are working to dispel this myth.”

R U OK? offers four tips to navigating a difficult conversation;

  1. Are you ok?
  2. Listen without judgement
  3. Encourage them to take action
  4. Check back in

“Friends and family can help by using the four steps anytime someone appears to be struggling.”

“Eventually the steps will become second nature and people find themselves recognising the signs someone’s struggling and check in.”

“It’s a great skill to have that can help people… help people…throughout their life.”

One in five teens drinking at riskier levels

One in five teens is drinking alcohol at risky levels higher than ever previously seen and parents are being urged to cut alcohol supplies to teens in an effort to curb binge drinking.

Overall, levels of teen alcohol consumption have decreased in recent years. However, those who are drinking are doing so at much higher levels than previous generations.

Recent studies from Curtin University and UNSW have found heavy drinking teens are gaining easy access to alcohol supplies from family, friends and bottle shops. Key links between parental supply and later binge drinking and alcohol dependence were results of a six-year study by UNSW’ s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).

Curtin University’ s National Drug Research Institute’s Young Australians Alcohol Reporting System (YAARS) study found boys aged 14-19 years who were part of the heaviest drinking cohort were consuming 17 standard drinks per drinking session. Girls in comparison were drinking 14 per session.

Lead author Dr Tina Lam said this group of teens was studied because there were a lot of unknowns about their consumption of alcohol and how it impacts their lives.

” We know from other studies that rates of alcohol-related emergency department presentations in Australian teenagers is twice as high as for other Australians and far too many ambulance call-outs for alcohol-related incidents involve those under the age of 18,” Dr Lam said.

“These heavy drinking sessions are the ones that are associated with the greatest harms – we wanted to know details such as exactly how much they were consuming, where they were drinking, where they obtained the alcohol and the range of harms experienced,” she added.

Nearly half (47 per cent) of the 3500 teens involved in the study said they had been a passenger in a car driven by someone affected by alcohol and 20 per cent had done so three or more times in the past year. More than one in ten teens surveyed had also presented at a hospital Emergency Department as a result of an alcohol-related injury.

Teens admitted they tended to drink at private gatherings and sourced their alcohol from friends, family and bottle shops without too much trouble.

However, parents who thought it was best to supply their teens with alcohol and supervise their drinking were putting their children at risk of binge drinking, according to UNSW Professor Richard Mattick.

Prof. Mattick and a team of researchers at the NDARC followed 2000 NSW teens for six years, tracking alcohol consumption and parental supply.

Prof. Mattick said by age 17 teens who had previously received alcohol from parents in younger years were more likely to participate in binge drinking, show symptoms of dependence and experience alcohol-related injuries.

“These results contrast with the results we obtained when the children were 15-year-olds when parental supply was associated with drinking but not with drinking to excess,” he said.

He said the consumption of alcohol did not continue in moderation as teens aged; in contrast, there was an increase in drinking problems.

“There was no evidence to support the view that in the long term, when teens are on the cusp of adulthood, that parental supply is anyway protective. Rather, to reduce the risks of alcohol-related harms parents should avoid supplying alcohol to children.”




Thriving in life takes some simple steps

Every parent wants their son to thrive in life, to excel and achieve to the best of his abilities. One determined scientist believes he has come up with the answer to the age-old question of how to get there – simply feeling good about yourself and the life you are leading.

From a baby learning to crawl to a teenager studying for exams, thriving is part of life which can make a person feel proud, fulfilled and give life greater meaning.

University of Portsmouth sport and exercise scientist Daniel Brown has collated years of research about thriving across different age groups and cultures to determine key aspects linked to effectively thriving rather than just surviving life in general.

“Thriving is a word most people would be glad to hear themselves described as, but which science hasn’t really managed to consistently classify and describe until now,” Dr Brown said.

“It appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something and succeeding at mastering something,” he said.

“In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”

Dr Brown identified key aspects linked to thriving, saying people do not need all of the characteristics listed but rather a combination of some criteria from each list;

A person thriving is:

  • optimistic;
  • spiritual or religious;
  • motivated;
  • proactive;
  • someone who enjoys learning;
  • flexible;
  • adaptable;
  • socially competent;
  • someone who believes in self/has self-esteem;

A person thriving has:

  • opportunity;
  • employer/family/other support;
  • challenges and difficulties which are at manageable levels;
  • a calm environment;
  • been given a high degree of autonomy;
  • been trusted as competent

Dr Brown said there had been a lack of consensus about thriving in past research because of the narrow focus of such studies, examining only certain age or social groups rather than using a broader approach.

“Since the end of the 20th century there has been a quest in science to better understand human fulfilment and thriving, there’s been a shift towards wanting to understand how humans can function as highly as possible… by setting out a clear definition, I hope this helps set a course for future research,” he said.

Dr Brown recommended future research in his findings, aimed at studying what enables thriving to occur and whether thriving has lasting/cumulative effects on individuals.

His research results were published in the European Psychologist Journal this month.