Back when my 16-year-old was a squirmy toddler, monitoring screen use only required limiting computer and TV time. As he’s grown, so have the number of screen options and opportunities to be online. Now that TVs are computers and computers also come in the form of phones and wristwatches, not to mention glasses, raising a connected child is a bigger challenge than ever. Navigating this brave new era is tough for parents whose world was once rocked by MTV!
Although this always buzzing, constantly connected digital world can seem distracting and even unnecessary to parents, it’s important to understand that virtual life IS real life to our children. Our kids not only rely on the digital world to socialize, do homework, and have fun, but they also use it to seek connection and validation.
That doesn’t mean that our digital kids should be let loose on a virtual playground. Indeed, as with the movies, parental guidance is suggested, and the amount of guidance varies based on the age, maturity, and temperament of each child. Here are six tips that can help steer that process.
1. Communication is key.
Creating a contract is a great way to lay out expectations, concerns, and consequences. Contracts literally get you and you tween or teen on the same page regardless of which tech device he’s using or where he’s using them. Common Sense Media has great tools to get your conversation started.
2. Be kind.
You may have heard the sage advice that kids shouldn’t text or share online anything they wouldn’t say to their grandmother, but you can add extra oomph to the message by letting them know that the phone company keeps a copy of their texts. Yes, even the deleted ones. It’s also helpful to let them know that online actions, even “anonymous” comments, can be tracked. This knowledge may keep your child in check or provide assurance if they wind up on the receiving end of bad behavior.
Also, be sure your children understand that even if they’re passing along bullying comments, it’s the same as bullying. Sharing inappropriate content is wrong, even if they are “just passing it along.” If your child doesn’t stand for what’s right, he’s doing something wrong. A key responsibility of good digital citizenship is to alert parents or other adults about inappropriate content or behavior.
My son once got involved in a text exchange with a stranger who’d contacted him. He should have ignored the text, but instead tried to figure out who was on the other end. After some back and forth, their exchange devolved into an “adult” conversation, complete with images. At that point, my son blocked the person, told me about the situation, and we filed a complaint with the police that evening.
3. Always Learning.
My oldest child was barely out of diapers when he realized that education was the key to his digital desires. His plaintive plea, “But it’s helping me learn,” was his ticket to an extra 15 minutes of computer time. To this day, not all screen time is created equal in our house and accessing educational content remains a priority. Let your child know where you expect them to spend time online and why.
4. Trust, but confirm.
Parents have unique worries about their children’s digital lives. Some worry about cyberbullying, while others are concerned about unsuitable, adult content. I’m most troubled about my boys falling down the giant sinkhole of games and interesting things that is the World Wide Web.
Parents can install tracking software and site blockers on home computers and devices they own. Whether or not to disclose that to your children can be a matter of debate. As parents, my husband and I have a pretty firm, “our house, our stuff, our rules” policy. We explain to our kids that we may choose to read their texts, check their browser histories and such at our will. Many of my friends have similar policies. However, tracking software or the ability to peek into the device won’t prevent kids from using their friends’ devices, which is why you want to set broad terms in the contract I mentioned in point 1.
5. Manage time.
Ideally, time management should also be included in your contract. Certain kids know when to take a break from the wired world, but those kids don’t live in my house. Of course we have mandated gadget breaks at mealtimes, but all tech devices also have a bedtime that precedes the one my boys have. As one of their teachers put it, “Nothing positive happens after 11:00.” Knowing the computer will go off at a specific time forces my boys to focus on completing their online homework rather than surfing around most of the evenings and finishing up homework close to midnight.
6. Create, don’t just consume.
Passively devouring content on a screen for hours on end just isn’t good for the body or the soul. Encourage your kids to be actively involved in creating something. One of my boys tends to tinker with and make physical objects. The other is a blossoming programmer who does most of his creating on the computer.
All this drives home the difficulty in keeping them away from screens. They play a role in so many areas of our lives. In the end, I take solace in the words of danah boyd [sic], a technology anthropologist who has spent years studying online habits of teenagers, “It’s complicated.” It is complicated, but that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t have a say in the digital lives if their children. With caring guidance, open communication, clearly stated expectations, and patience we’ll guide them through the digital age the same way we teach them about other aspects of life.
What are you favorite tips for raising digital kids?