DIGITAL KIDS: How to Click With Young Techies
Many Silicon Valley executives that design devices and apps have put their own children in tech-free Waldorf schools, reports The New York Times; even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs strictly limited their kids’ screen time. They know firsthand what many parents fear—that kids are missing out on developing life and social skills because of technology that has been deliberately designed to be addictive.
Recent studies link excessive digital use by kids to anxiety, depression and, according to a team of University of Southern California scientists published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a doubled risk of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder compared with infrequent users. However, there are sound strategies that we can use to help kids navigate the electronic wilds, say experts.
“Parent like a tech exec by establishing strong tech limits and actively engaging your kids instead with family, school and the outdoors,” advises Richard Freed, Ph.D., a Walnut Creek, California, child and teen psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.
1 Devise a family master plan for tech use. A good place to start is the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Use Plan (HealthyChildren.org/English/media). “Rules can be general, like no video games on weeknights, or very specific, like you can only play YouTube videos on the living room computer when other family members are present,” says Angela Roeber, director of communications at Omaha’s Project Harmony, a child protection nonprofit.
2 Set sensible time limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends monitored, minimal screen time for kids under 2 years old; one hour a day for kids 2 to 5; and “consistent limits” for kids 6 and older. “What works best for my family is a simple kitchen timer,” says Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.
3 Talk with kids. Discuss with them why limits are needed, how to evaluate internet information according to its source, ways to exercise caution on social media and why some games are deliberately designed to be never-ending. A 2015 Korean study of 2,376 grade-schoolers published in School Psychology International found that if parents show warmth and supervise their kids’ tech use with rational explanations, the children use less digital media.
4 Ban devices at meals and bedtime. Just having electronics in sight interrupts focus, University of Texas at Austin researchers found. At night, make sure devices are turned off an hour before bedtime, and then collect them into a recharging basket by the front door. Keep phones, computers and tablets in a public part of the home—out of kids’ bedrooms—so that online activities are in plain view.
5 Keep up with the latest tech releases. Join kids in their games, apps and website visits. Check out CommonSenseMedia.org, which rates such content. If one causes concern, instead of Googling just its name, add search terms like “risks”, “problems” or “child use”.
6 Employ parental controls. Websites and games can be blocked or limited within the devices themselves. Consider replacing the Safari or Chrome browser on a device with a kid-friendly version like Mobicip or GoogleSafeSearch, or installing in-depth monitoring programs such as Net Nanny, Norton Family Premier or Qustodio Parental Control.
7 Create enjoyable alternatives. Bicycle with kids in a park. Enroll them in sport teams and art classes. “Part of the challenge we face as parents is that these devices make things easier for us because our kids are occupied, so if we want to change our kids’ tech behavior, we’ll have to change how we do things, as well,” says Mariam Gates, an educator and author of Sweet Dreams: Bedtime Visualizations for Kids.
8 Do a family digital detox. During one Sunday a month at home, a weekend away camping or a vacation at a remote spot, keep all devices off and away—and watch how kids grow more responsive as they tune back into “real life”.
“Remember, our kids may always be an app ahead of us, but they will always need our parenting wisdom,” advises Sue Scheff, a cyber-safety blogger and co-author with Melissa Schorr of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.
Ronica A. O’Hara is a natural-health writer based in Denver. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.