There is no greater challenge for parents today than managing their children’s use of technology. Children are using electronic devices from early ages at rates that are hard for many to comprehend. A study by Common Sense Media indicates that children under the age of 8 spend an average of two hours in front of a screen each day, whether it is a television set, a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer. Children between 8 and 18 spend an average of over six hours a day in front of a screen. Parents have limited control over what their children are exposed to, which can raise anxiety and make it hard to understand our children.
In order to help with this, I suggest that we step back and think about the risks and benefits of our children’s technology use.
Why Are Children Using Devices? The Benefits and Risks
Parents often ask me, “How much screen time should I let my child have every day?” The answer varies, depending on what it’s being used for.
Children’s use of technology can be broken down into two categories: active and inactive. Inactive screen time refers to technology use in which we have little means of expressing ourselves, such as sitting in front of a TV, where our only means of managing what we are exposed to is changing the channel or volume. Active screen time is that which allows for expression, such as social media or online gaming. This use of technology is healthier in that it allows us to connect with others, something that is developmentally important for children.
Much of middle and high school children’s social interaction these days happens in the virtual world. Banning devices means that children cannot participate in the social world of their peers. While this is no replacement for in-person contact, active technology use can be beneficial, especially for children whose lives are filled with extracurricular activities.
At the same time, there are many risks to our children using technology. Without intending it, children can come in contact with online predators or peers with bad intentions, or be exposed to content that is not age appropriate. These experiences stir up troubling feelings and are extremely difficult for parents to prevent.
To help with this, I recommend that parents think about how their children might react to inappropriate content. Are they able to recognize negative influences, and how might their behavior indicate that they’ve had a bad experience? Some children react by having nightmares or becoming more isolated. Each child has a different way of reacting, and it’s good for parents to be aware of these.
Parents can help by creating a dialogue about all the content their children come in contact with. Being available to help a child process his or her reactions to technology is almost as important as preventing negative experiences from happening. The more children sense their parents’ curiosity and openness, the more resilient they will be in coping with difficult content. Some parents find it helpful to familiarize themselves with their children’s devices, social media, and online gaming, and even sometimes participate in these activities with them. This can help parents to connect with and understand their children better.
Parents can help by creating a dialogue about all the content their children come in contact with. Being available to help a child process his or her reactions to technology is almost as important as preventing negative experiences from happening.
Parents Should Create a Plan for Technology Use Together
It is important for parents to have a discussion about how technology should be used in the family, and to create a plan for its role that reflects what each parent wants and is sensitive to the family’s values. More important than the plan itself is its clarity and how the parents feel about it, as families vary in their comfort with technology.
Begin with deciding the aspects of family life that are more important than technology, whether it is family dinners, household chores, schoolwork, or extracurricular activities. Discuss what devices are acceptable and what times of day they should be used. Consider what areas of the home devices should or should not be allowed. If parents are concerned about a child’s technology use, I recommend that devices not be allowed in the child’s bedroom. Parents should also discuss what they hope to get out of this plan, and how to evaluate whether it is working.
Once these issues have been resolved, parents should also reflect on what it was like to create the plan. Often, this process helps parents become more connected.
Discussing the Family’s Technology Plan with the Children
Once the plan is in place, it is time for implementation. Parents should introduce the plan together with their children, and should try to be as clear as possible. As with any limit-setting, it is important for parents to appear as a unified front and support one another.
Once the plan has been implemented, parents should regularly check in about how it is working. Are the results they had hoped for becoming reality? What other changes have they noticed that they did not anticipate? If the plan is not working, what is preventing this?
The Bottom Line
Despite the difficult feelings that come with all of this, parents should remember that they are in control of the devices their children use. Parents should familiarize themselves with control settings as much as possible on everything their children use. Do not give out passwords, and remember that devices and screen time can be an excellent reward for achievements at school or home.
These are all important issues for families to process nowadays. The online world has become the new playground for our children, and it is important for parents to be mindful of how this world can be used for their family’s benefit.
- Bean, Sarah. (2015). 4 Steps to Managing Your Child’s Screen Time. Retrieved from http://empoweringparents.com/4-steps-to-managing-your-childs-screen-time.php
- Lewin, Tamar. (2011). Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/us/screen-time-higher-than-ever-for-children-study-finds.html?_r=0
- Rideout, V., Sapir, M., Tsang, V., and Bozdech, B. (2013). Zero to Eight, Children’s Media Use in America. Retrieved from http://commonsensemedia.org/screen-time
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