Helping kids navigate technology and digital media can often feel overwhelming; there always seems to be a new app or online service with different features and rules and too often these tools are focused on leveraging design techniques to keep users glued to their devices rather than helping them set healthy boundaries. At the same time, many of these online apps let kids connect with friends and family, learn new skills, and follow their passions. Finding your balance as a parent can be tricky, but there are some approaches and guidelines you can follow to help kids become safer, wiser, and ultimately more independent users of technology and digital media. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions parents have raised regarding technology over the years at CRS and my best efforts to answer them with practical advice to set you and your children up for success.
What does the research say?
The research is complicated, and often not particularly helpful as it can offer contradictory findings depending on how the researchers define terms. What is most important is to focus on what all of the research does agree on:
What it’s used for – and how it’s used – matter greatly. Important questions to ask both you and your child are:
How do they feel after using it / watching it?
Is it making them feel more connected or more isolated?
Are they learning something new, or are they comparing themselves to others?
2. Tracking “screentime” is less important than focusing on priorities and working backward. Sleep, face-to-face time, and exercise significantly benefit kids’ well-being and need to be priorities. If they’re not getting enough of these things, make adjustments accordingly.
3. Focus your efforts on mentoring and less on monitoring. As parents, you have a crucial role in shaping your children’s behavior; they take their cues from you. Modeling proper usage, time, and context is much more effective than playing defense through excessive monitoring and blocking. It is important to note that this does not mean you should not monitor, but monitoring by itself will often lead to kids trying to hide their behavior and closing down lines of communication.
What does “mentoring” look like?
Look at social media together. Have conversations with your kids about the photos/content you both are posting; it helps them understand your values and the possible impact of their choices.
Discuss and implement guidelines together. Giving them a sense of agency and coming up with the guidelines together empowers them and maintains open lines of communication. Kids have a hard time setting their own because of the need for inclusion and, for some, rules can be a relief from peer pressure, especially if they can frame you as the “bad guy” when talking with their peers and they have trouble disconnecting.
Unplug yourself. Kids need your modeling to know that it is ok to put aside work, constant communication, etc.
Ask permission before taking photos of your kids (establish this as a norm). It’s especially important for kids to feel they can say “No”, and that they can set boundaries.
Think aloud when interacting with social media/text messaging. Our children see fewer face-to-face interactions between adults and this will help them learn the appropriate way to engage. Similarly, if you’re reading the news or a book on your iPad, or researching how to do something, let your kids know that’s what you’re doing.
How do I know when my child is ready for a ____ (phone, laptop, device, etc.)?
Build trust over time (think about it like a driver’s license model). As they demonstrate using technology wisely, they earn more privileges. Set “trust milestones” so kids know what it would take for you to trust them with social media and if they violate that trust talk with them clearly about what you need to see to earn that trust back.
My child has a hard time “turning it off” – what can I do?
Break up long sessions with time off.
Elementary – 40 minutes on, 1 hour off
Middle School – 1 hour on, 1 hour off
Set family guidelines to always do something physically active right after turning it off. This helps with transitions and offers a way for the body to burn off all of the energy and stimulation it was receiving while not being physically active.
Where can I get more information?
Much of my thinking has been shaped by a few excellent authors in the field who have written very good books on the subject:
Screenwise by Devorah Heitner: aimed primarily at elementary and middle school, this is one of the most practical texts on the subject, and very helpful when thinking about how to mentor kids.