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How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use

Illustrations by Hannah Jacobs

 

Top 3 Tips to Remember

A few basic parenting guidelines will help you establish ground rules and maintain tech harmony at home.

1. Aim for Balance

It’s clear that technology is here to stay and the world is becoming only more digitally driven. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Technology can be empowering for kids of all ages, with tools that help children learn in fun and engaging ways, express their creativity, and stay connected to others. Children who are tech-savvy will also be better prepared for a workforce that will be predominantly digital.  

At the same time, parents naturally worry about their kids accessing inappropriate content online, the impact of too much screen time on healthy development, and their children becoming tethered to technology.

As with most situations, a balanced approach to these new challenges works best. “The most important step is to establish a balanced or sustainable relationship with tech,” says the social psychologist Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.” You can liken it to aiming for a healthy diet, Dr. Alter explains: “Older kids understand the concept of balance intuitively — they know that it’s important to eat healthy foods alongside candy and dessert, and the same is true of the ’empty calories’ that come from spending too much time passively gazing at screens. There’s a time for screens, but not at the expense of time for physical activity and connecting with real people in real-time.”

Some things to keep in mind as you try to strike this delicate balance:

There’s no single recipe for success, but you’ll know it when you see it. Balance for your family will look different than it will for your neighbor because every family is unique and parenting styles and values vary. In general, though, if your family can reap the benefits of technology without feeling many of the harmful effects and you feel confident in how your children are using technology, you’ve likely found balance.

Watch for the warning signs of unhealthy tech usage. The psychologist Jon Lasser, who co-wrote “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World,” says parents should note when:

  • Kids complain that they’re bored or unhappy when they don’t have access to technology
  • Tantrums or harsh resistance occur when you set screen time limits
  • Screen time interferes with sleep, school, and face-to-face communication

Be prepared to revisit this topic again and again. As your children grow, so will their involvement with technology. Also, it’s difficult to predict what the digital world will look like even just a few years from now. Your definition of healthy and unhealthy tech usage will need regular updates. Fun times ahead!

Some tips to evaluate the quality of your children’s digital interactions (which you should do regularly):

  • Are they accessing age-appropriate content? 
  • Are the apps they use interactive and thought-provoking rather than passive? Not all screen time is equal. Going back to the food analogy, 100 calories from a doughnut is not the same as 100 calories from a salad; an hour watching YouTube videos isn’t the same as an hour spent in a digital art program.
  • Are the privacy settings for older children’s social media and other online accounts set to restrict what strangers can see and who can contact your children?  

Still set screen time limits to balance online and offline activities. Although quality is most important, you’ll probably still want to set some screen time limits for your family to preserve time for activities beyond screens and tech. While the debate on exactly how many hours kids can spend on their screens before it becomes unhealthy rages on, you can draw firm lines for tech-free times, such as during dinner, in the car, or on school nights.

2. Be a Role Model

Technology’s irresistible pull draws in parents as much as it does kids. We check our phones every hour, log late hours working or surfing the internet on our laptops, binge watch our favorite shows, and even engage in dangerous “distracted walking.” Children are likely to not only copy our behavior, but they also feel like they have to compete with devices for our attention. Nearly half of parents in one study reported technology interfering with interactions with their child three or more times on a typical day.

Google and Apple are starting to address this growing concern about tech taking over our lives by adding new phone features such as time limits for specific apps (for Android) and statistics on time spent on devices (for iOS). While digital tools can help us curb excessive gadget usage, practicing and demonstrating mindful use of technology ourselves will be the best way to teach children the critical skill of unplugging.

Set boundaries for work time and family time. A few key times to stay unplugged include:

  • when picking up or dropping children at school, as this is a transitional time for them
  • After coming home from work, as that’s time to reconnect with your family
  • during meals, including when dining out
  • during outings like trips to the park or zoo, or vacations when the focus is on family time

Know when you’re really busy and need to be plugged in and when you don’t. Often, it feels like there’s a work or social emergency and you have to take that call, respond to a message, or check your email — but when you really think about it, it could wait until after you’ve finished that movie or game with your child.

Use media the way you want your children to.  Follow common-sense rules around tech like never texting while driving and avoiding oversharing on social media. 

By practicing what you preach instead of the hypocritical “do as I say not what I do” approach, you emulate the habits you want your children to pick up and show them that there are times for using technology and times when we should be present in the real world.

3. Make Tech a Family Affair

Your family likely discusses important decisions that affect the group day-to-day, such as who’s responsible for doing the dishes and where you should go for your next vacation. Technology use should take the same type of planning, so everyone’s on board with the same expectations.

Set rules as a family. When you set limits with children, Dr. Lasser says, kids can start learning how to self-regulate and know when screen time is interfering too much with the rest of their lives. As a bonus, he adds: “Kids are also less likely to balk at limits if they have a role in creating and establishing them.” You can create a  family media use plan at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website. 

  • Be involved with your child’s tech experiences. Playing or watching alongside your children offers several benefits. You’ll be able to vet the content they are accessing, the child will learn more from the activity through your interaction, and you’ll bond through the shared experience. If your children seem to be light years ahead in tech acumen compared with you, let them teach you — it’s a confidence-booster for them and important for you to keep up with the new experiences they’re having. This might mean sitting through dizzying Minecraft builds, Fortnite games, or learning teenspeak, but at least you’ll experience the virtual world together.
  • Tailor your approach to each child. As with other areas of parenting, what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another, depending on their ages, personalities, and needs. Your 10-year-old might be more careful about not playing inappropriate games or keeping your computer free of viruses than your 12-year-old. Your 12-year-old might not want a phone even though her friends all have one.
  • Age ranges aren’t hard guidelines (including the ones in this guide). Instead, consider them a general roadmap for mentoring your children from an introduction to technology to making their own decisions about how to use it wisely.

 

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