Never in the course of human history has it been such a challenge for parents to set boundaries for technologies the kids may understand better than they do. Technology is growing and changing every day. Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s okay for your child, everything changes.
When my computer-whiz son was a teenager, he found ways around every parental control and provider barrier I set up. Today, kids from my son’s generation are making the parental control programs.
Often, parents come to my office and want to know the “appropriate” amount of time kids “should” be allowed to use electronic devices. Unfortunately, that’s like asking someone outside the family what the appropriate amount of fresh food versus takeout dinners per week is. Every parent is going to have their own comfort level. There are no hard and fast rules that apply to every household. But rules, within your comfort level, are important.
In determining your household’s limits, you might want to start by asking how well your child is doing academically, physically, socially, and spiritually. A child who struggles academically, finds it challenging to get outdoors, is socially awkward, or resists participating in family traditions may need more parameters set for them in regards to electronic entertainment.
Another consideration is that electronics mean different things to different kids. For some children, they’re the line to their social life. For others, it means feeling competent (gaming) or gives them something to brag about (scores, knowledge). For yet other kids, these devices may represent a way to escape and avoid uncomfortable feelings that they don’t have other coping skills for. And some kids are busy working on lifelong passions in art, design, music, or writing. Having a good understanding about what electronic devices mean to your particular child is essential in setting up a healthy program at home.
Whatever system you set up in your home, it is important to always have the passwords to your children’s devices, email, and social media. Check these regularly to see if your child is abiding by your rules. If you set up rules and never check that they’re being followed, you’ll have lost a lot of credibility with your child if/when they do run afoul. Don’t say anything you’re not sure you will follow through on. Better to be more lenient and predictable than strict but inconsistent. Phones, tablets, and laptops should also be charged outside the child’s room at night.
One of the leading causes of depression, anxiety, poor grades, and overall grumpiness in children and teens is sleep deprivation, which can be caused by middle-of-the-night electronics use. Parents may sleep though a child waking up and being online for two hours. It is essential that electronics be out of a child’s reach at night. If a child needs music, stories, or sound to fall asleep, an MP3 player, a white noise machine, or a wireless speaker can be set up without controls in their room.
When parents have decided on an amount of time they’re comfortable allowing a child to use recreational electronics, they must ask themselves some questions. Is the allotted time cumulative for all electronics (phone, tablet, video games, television)? Or is the allotted time for a particular platform? For instance, some families may be comfortable with unlimited TV time, as long as the family is watching together, but may restrict video game time, which tends to isolate children.
When setting up a family program for a child to earn electronic device time, it is imperative that parents give credence only to behaviors they can verify outside the child’s self-report. Kids lie. Let’s face it—even if you catch half their lies (improbable), they still have gotten away with 50%! That means half the time you don’t have any credibility. If you say, “You can play video games after your homework is done” and you give that reward every time your child self-reports that their homework is done, you may be rewarding their deception as often as their work. So, always check. Look at the school’s online page. Check each class to see if projects and homework are turned in. Email teachers who might be slow to post. But at all costs, bypass an argument about lying by making the effort to see for yourself. You will gain respect and credibility from your child, and you’ll lose your temper less and not get sidetracked scolding about moral lessons.
Once you know which activities are most important to monitor (everything is not important for every child), be specific about what you expect. Examples: “When your teacher has posted that all your homework is turned in, you will earn one hour of video game time that evening.” “When you finish soccer practice, you may have 30 minutes of tablet time.” “When you finish these three chores and I check them, you can have your phone until your bedtime of 9 p.m.”
Contingencies need to be specific, concrete (nothing about “attitude,” “tone,” or “respect”), and set up ahead of time. Any consequence, good or bad, a parent throws out during an argument will likely be attributed to the parent’s mood. “I’ve told you why, you just need to go do it, I’ll give you an extra 30 minutes if you go right now” gets translated as, “Oh, they’re in a good mood.” “I’ve asked and asked, I’m tired of this, you’re going to lose all your privileges for the next week” is translated as, “Oh, they’re in a bad mood.”
If you want a child to believe they have earned a reward or deserved a punishment, these must be set up, preferably in writing, before the activity. When a parent’s rules are written down, they may seem enduring, not something made up on the spot that may change with the mood of the moment. Children may be confused and feel insecure in homes where rules constantly change. Parents are often confused when kids delve into long-standing debates, little aware that the kids are emulating their communication style. Don’t model for your child “whoever has the best evidence gets their way.” Show (don’t tell) your child, with kindness, that you are consistent and they can count on you.
Once you have set up which behaviors are most important—being on time, homework turned in, exercising, chores, volunteering, etc.—then attach the reward of electronics time.
Some children are naturally self-regulated and need this kind of guidance in only one or two areas. Other kids who are not good self-regulators may need several contingencies to progress successfully through the developmental stages of childhood and adolescence. If your child is motivated on their own to get good grades, seeks out motivated peers, and loves helping with chores, you may only need to set a time when electronics are to be turned off. If, on the other hand, you have a child who only wants to be on their electronic devices, you may need to set up a more comprehensive program.
Helpful Tools for Parents
A therapist can help a family set up a workable system for their home. If a child is escaping anxiety or depression by hiding in electronics, a therapist may be able to help with the underlying issues.
There are many new tools for parents who wish to provide consistent contingencies for their children. Disney’s Circle allows parents to control all electronics from their phone/computer and it adds all the time a child spends on each device together for a total time they’re allowed. For instance, if Jessie is allowed two hours a day, the time spent on the phone, TV, video games, and a tablet would all be added together so Jessie couldn’t go over her two-hour limit.
Qustodio is another app that allows parents to track what kids are doing online. If you set boundaries but have no way of enforcing them, your child may soon learn that you don’t really mean what you say. Another app, Xooloo, helps coach parents in ways to talk to kids about online activities.
A therapist can also help a family set up a workable system for their home. If a child is escaping anxiety or depression by hiding in electronics, a therapist may be able to help with the underlying issues.
Don’t expect wrangling electronic devices to be easy, and certainly don’t assume you’ll do it once and for all. As children grow, their relationship to electronics changes—and so will the need for your rules.
- Decide what you think is appropriate electronic entertainment for your child (type and amount of time).
- Consider how well your child is doing right now in the important areas of their life.
- Determine what electronic entertainment means to your child.
- Always have and check passwords.
- Keep electronics out of children’s bedrooms at night.
- Reward only behaviors you’ve checked out for yourself (do not rely on self-reports by the child).
- Be specific (homework recorded by teacher, dishes put away by 4 p.m., piano practiced for 30 minutes by 5 p.m., etc.).
- Write down contingencies ahead of time (don’t renegotiate or threaten in the middle of an argument).
- Decide how much oversight your child needs to lead a productive life.
- Use new parenting apps and programs to be consistent and predictable.
- Enlist the help of a therapist if need be.
Merkl, L. (2016, July 21). Lack of sleep increases a child’s risk for emotional disorders later. Retrieved from http://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/2016/July/072116Alfano-SleepEmotion.php
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