correction: An earlier version of this column suggested parents use an app from Common Sense Media to find age-appropriate media for their children. Common Sense Media has a website that provides this information, but no longer has an app. The column has been updated.
Q: Are you sick of questions about devices yet? Because my kids, 11 and 9, got them for Christmas (one a phone, one an iPad). They can text friends, play games, take pictures. What rules should be in place? What tricks have you used as a parent? Can this be a good thing? What do we need to watch out for?
A: You, as well as thousands of parents around the world, have the same question this time of the year. In our holiday excitement to please and surprise our children with the latest technology, many of us have handed over sophisticated and expensive devices, only wondering after the wrapping paper has been thrown away, “Wait, did we need to set rules in place before we handed that device over?”
Don’t worry; you are not alone in trying to create rules after you handed over the technology. Most parents are not prepared for this huge gift and change in the family. Changes this big usually come with built-in training in our culture. Take getting a driver’s license: In American culture, there is a time to begin considering driving, there is a process to obtain the license, and then applicants must prove that they are ready for the responsibility with a driving test. Chances are good you went through this process and your parents went through it, too. Although it may scare you to think about your children driving in the future, you consciously or unconsciously take comfort in knowing there is a process.
But technology has gotten the best of parents. Rather than slowly preparing our children for the huge world of tech (as we do with driving), we allow them to have powerful devices without boundaries or rules. And because technology is addictive — and frankly, fun — for all human brains, wrestling back the technology after we have given it to children invites power struggles. Add to this drama that the average 7-year-old can be more technologically savvy than the average adult, and parents are outmatched at every turn. I don’t recommend allowing children to have technology and then setting rules, but you are not alone in doing this (cough-cough, me, too). We can only move forward with the best intentions to do better in the future.
My go-to expert on all things digital and parenting is child psychologist Adam Pletter. A parent of teens himself, he knows technology is here to stay, and our best parenting bet is to prepare our children, not shelter and scare them around this topic. Pletter reminds parents in a paper on the topic that the “smart phone, tablet, or iPod touch that you are handing to your child is designed for adults and, out of the box, is set up for adults — not children. Be honest with yourself that by giving your child the adult device you are inviting them into the adult digital world.”
Although tech and gaming companies market and sell to children, parents need to remember that these are adult devices you are allowing your child to borrow. Just as there are rules for how long a child has to drive with an adult present, a child has to ease into using technology. And to better aid this transition, the family message should be: “It is a privilege to use this adult device, and we (parents) are here to help you use it. We are going to create rules to help you use it responsibly.” Your children will probably balk, but that’s okay. We are not in the business of making our children happy when we allow them to use these devices; we are in the business of responsible use and safety (and sure, some fun, too).
To drive home the idea that these are adult devices, and before you create a family contract, sit down with your partner and get straight how you see the use of these items playing out. I work with many parents who are surprised to find how lackadaisical or strict their partner is about tech usage for the children. Any preconceived notions we can put on the table before you talk to your children about technology helps keep the family on the same page and the disagreements to a minimum.
Once you and your partner discuss the tech, the most useful and easiest way to check in with your children about tech use is a family meeting. Because you have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old, family meetings and discussions of tech usage can be a regular occurrence. I encourage you to see these discussions as check-ins that will last as long as you have children under your roof. Similar to talking about sexuality, checking in with your children about tech use should be flexible and frequent. You are better off having short, recurring talks about rules and boundaries than trying to have one big talk. If this feels like one more exhausting thing to do in your parenting life, you are right. Monitoring your children’s tech use is a chronic hassle. By allowing this access, you have created work for yourself. Once you accept this responsibility, you may be able to relax into the reality rather than fight it.
In addition to the wonderful advice of Pletter, I recommend getting into your children’s tech worlds. Sit next to them, watch them play Fortnite, and ask questions. Check out the apps they want and the games they love. Visit the Common Sense Media web site to see which games are fun, educational and age-appropriate. In fact, even before my children ask for an app, I have trained them to check Common Sense Media for the app’s appropriateness. If Common Sense Media says no, it’s a no from me, too. So, the more into their worlds you can get (I know it is hard to imagine watching YouTube videos of other children playing video games, but surrender to it), the more traction you will have with your children when it comes to rules and boundaries.
Finally, all of the tech rules will change over time as your child matures, but please know this: There are strong links between children with executive functioning issues and addiction to gaming and social media. These addictions happen quickly, and the behavioral fallout from trying to get the children off the games is emotionally (and even physically) hard on the child and the parent. Be on the lookout for drops in grades, outside play, extracurricular and social interests, and disappearance from the family social areas.
Remember, you are in charge, so do what you must to give your child’s brain time and space to mature. They have a lifetime of tech ahead of them; don’t feel pressured to give it all to them now.
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