Q: My 9-year-old got a tablet for Christmas, and we’re trying to figure out what the rules will be, especially with school back in session. I see you posting about screens a lot on your Facebook page, particularly when it comes to your own daughters. Do you have hard-and-fast rules? General guidelines?
A: Welcome to the rest of your parenting life with this struggle.
I could give you a million hard-and-fast rules, but here is the only absolute truth: You will work at this until the children leave the house.
You can buy many great books and take great courses about technology and children, but that doesn’t change the fact that your child received a gift that requires near-constant diligence and flexibility and some faith from you.
In terms of guidelines, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is amending its suggestions because the tech has changed so quickly from simple TV watching. There are many studies being conducted, and here are just a few of the topics: effects on children’s brains, gaming addiction (which I believe we will see in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the near future), social media, attention-related issues, obesity, decision-making, hand-eye coordination and sleep.
Essentially, we created technology and unleashed it on our children, and now we are sprinting to understand what it is doing to them.
So to cut through the noise, I am going to focus on what I care about, study, and have spent my life thinking about and working on: connection between parent (caregiver) and child.
Am I doom and gloom when it comes to tech and children? No, I love it. When it comes to connection, nothing in our lives connects us more than technology. It brings together families separated by location, divorce and military duties. It gives us a way to communicate with our children when we don’t know where they are. It helps children on the fringes of culture find their tribes. It cultivates interests and fosters creativity.
Is my house constantly connected? No. Like everything wonderful, technology has a dark side. Aside from gaming addiction and social-media worries, I am keenly aware that the intrinsic nature of technology is that your head is bent down, your eyes staring into a screen. Into a virtual world. Into images fake and real. If one of the most important aspects of being human is our connection to other humans and nature, most technology works at direct odds to this. It steals our eyes. It steals our attention. It steals our ability to focus on what is in front of us.
For children, who are immature and have poor impulse control, the seduction of this virtual world is too great to resist.
My job, your job — every adult’s job — is to toe the line. We can create rules, set up parental controls, buy complicated routers, buy apps that shut down and moderate tech use, and generally police the heck out of our children to help them with self-control until they mature, but nothing substitutes a strong parent-child relationship.
So what do I do about technology in my house?
1. I held off on tablets, smartphones and personal computers as long as I could. It felt like the right time to get a smartphone for my oldest child when she went to middle school. She was mature enough to not lose or break it, and I mostly trusted her. The work, really, became mine. No matter how many contracts, charts and rules I create, I still have to be aware of where her technology is. All of the time. I allowed tablets at about 9 years old, and because my youngest child always feels left out, she is allowed to borrow my phone to play a game or two. This is a huge pain for me, but it is less of a pain than if I had to chase her around the house snatching a device that I gave to her.
2. Be prepared to hear all about what other kids are getting and able to do with their technology. To hear it from my children, all of their friends were born holding iPhones and have been on Instagram since they were 2 years old. This is ridiculous and untrue, but it can easily plant an insecure seed in your parenting mind. You can even begin to believe that you are hurting your child. You aren’t. Get a mantra going: “Every family does things differently. This is how we do it.” They will whine and throw fits and feel tortured. It is okay. They will live. Stick to your parenting values.
3. Be prepared to learn about new games and apps and social media, while always knowing that you will fall grievously short of knowing everything. There is no way for you to keep up. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I have had my 12-year-old teach me Snapchat about 100 times; we actually have had some really great laughs about it.
4. Be prepared to change the rules based on your child’s immaturity, development, executive-functioning issues, attention issues, sleep issues, bullying, distraction from school and family, nature deprivation, lack of creative play. Whatever rules you create will not stay that way. Accept it.
5. Don’t take it personally when there’s blowback from the boundaries you place on technology. If you set boundaries and punish your children for their reactions, you are going to have a fairly strained (read: horrible) relationship with your child. You need to be the adult and realize that you are doing what needs to be done. Complain to your partner, your friends, the person in the grocery line, but don’t blame your children for wanting to keep the technology you gave them.
6. Have a day in the week that is free of technology. We do cell-free Sundays, which include no smartphones, computers or TV. Football is allowed because, well, double standards. It was not well received in the beginning but is now part of the family routine, and it is lovely.
7. This next piece of advice may surprise some, but a dear friend who has two teens and one middle-schooler said this to me: “Meghan, unless you suspect real danger or have real concerns, do not read your child’s texts on a daily basis. It will erode the good trust you have with your child, promote sneakiness in your child and create a ‘gotcha’ atmosphere in your family.” Do I still glance at texts, Instagram and Snapchat? Yes. But I tell my child when I do it and what I learned, and then I go into listening mode. The main message is: “I care. I am watching. I know your heart. I love you. You will make mistakes. I will always be here for you. I am listening.” But again, the longer you can wait to put texting into a child’s hands, the better. Because the more mature they are when this starts, the more they will be able to handle the pressures of being online.
8. Unless there is a compelling reason, do not allow your children to charge their devices in their bedrooms. They will say it is for an alarm, they will say it is easier, they will scream that you don’t trust them. Keep your boundary. Children are already losing sleep at alarming rates, and having technology in their bedrooms only increases their awake time and distractibility and allows more time for shenanigans.
9. Recognize that, as a culture, we are not moving backward. Technology is here to stay. But your parental influence is crucial. Are you always on technology? Do you get outside? Do you have friends over to see them face to face? Do you read real books and newspapers? Do you engage in conversation with strangers? Before you ever go about fixing your children, be sure to get your own technology life in line. Yes, we adults have work and obligations, but be sure to walk some of the walk if you are going to talk the talk.