Setting Limits: Parenting in the Digital Age
There were six of us in the house on Fair Avenue: my two parents, three brothers, and me. Mom managed our entire lives on a three-by-two-foot paper calendar stuck to a giant corkboard in the kitchen. Her swooping script stretched across each day’s white rectangle, noting appointments, events, and reminders. If you wanted to know where you needed to be (and when), you checked mom’s colossal calendar.
We didn’t have cell phones or computers; there was no concept of gaming (aside from Monopoly or the primitive “Intellivision.”). When it was time for homework, we sat at our desks--textbooks and papers spread like fans across the surface. If I needed to know a fact, I looked it up. In an encyclopedia.
Today, my husband and I have Outlook calendars, shared Google docs, and a complex array of logistical emails swirling between us. Our son texts us when he’s arrived at school on his bike, and he alerts us when he’s about to come home. The homework landscape echoes that of my childhood only superficially; there are backpacks and papers, but technology looms over everything. Required to log on daily to Khan Academy or Schoology, my kids operate in an entirely different homework universe.
Parenting in the digital age. It’s a brave new world, as parents try to ascertain how much technology use is technically “necessary” for daily homework completion. While schools embrace iPad integration and apps for teaching, parents grapple with questions around how to set appropriate boundaries for electronic media at home. There is often such enthusiasm for adopting new technologies that we lunge forward, then fall back—ignorant of the complications these innovations can create (despite their allure).
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2010 study, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, the average young American spends most of his or her time — except for school time — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. In their large-scale study, researchers found that youth (ages 8 to 18) spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices—not including time spent texting or talking on cell phones. That time comes out of the same 168 hours a week we’re all given, which often means sacrificing sleep, physical activity, and actual face-to-face human interaction.
Here to Stay
Regardless of the complications, technology is now as much a part of the educational milieu as grade cards, fluorescent lights, and uncomfortable desks. The question is: how are we going to work with it? In education circles, the answers continue to evolve. For parents, the more immediate concern is: how can we work with it in our homes?Here are six ways to leverage the benefits of technology while setting appropriate limits for our kids.
- Educate yourself
Common Sense Media provides trustworthy information and tools so families can make informed choices about the media they consume. On their website, you’ll find technology reviews, parenting advice regarding boundaries and digital media, educator tools, and a policy/advocacy section. Check it out at: www.commonsensemedia.org
- Create the On/Off Switch
Kids have underdeveloped frontal brain lobes; this means the on/off switch is underutilized (or nascent) for self-regulation, delayed gratification, planning, organizing, and time awareness. This area is the last part of the brain to develop and tends to mature in early adulthood. To help your child develop boundaries for reasonable tech use:
- Teach Mindful Tech Use: Students may be required to use the computer for homework, but that doesn’t equate to all-night access. Teach them how to build compartments around tech time and be purposeful about what they consume. For a “screen time toolkit”, check out: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/hpcd/chp/cdrr/obesity/pdfdocs/screentimetoolkit.pdf
- Set up a family media contract. You’ll find a multitude of agreements online, such as this one: http://www.onthelineca.org/2013/02/family-media-agreement/
- Trouble limiting access to the internet? If your web access is Wifi-based, change the password daily; provide it to your children only after certain conditions are met (other homework is completed and shown, chores are done, etc.). The same can be done with passwords for computers not relying on Wifi for internet.
- Maintain Human Contact: Create Tech-Free Time and Space
Prioritize human relationships and interaction over tech, ALWAYS. Role model being fully present; unplug when it’s family time.
- Create “No-Tech Zones”: Keep tech devices out of your child’s room; put them in areas of public view and supervision at home. Also, make spaces in the house that are free of electronic devices. The dining room is a logical tech-free zone, reserved only for eating and human conversation.
- Establish “No-Tech Times”: Instead of enabling 24/7 access to tech devices, differentiate “screen time” from non-screen time. Set times during the day when there will be no screen time—for EVERYONE. Meal times and an hour before bedtime are ideal.
- Leverage Tech Tools for Tech’s Sake
Technology has a lot to offer, despite its power to distract.
- Explore the world and all the internet has to teach about it together, as a family.
- To limit over-use, plenty of apps exist to help us build awareness and set limits for personal tech use. Explore apps like SelfControl to build self-regulation into your (and your child’s) tech time: http://selfcontrolapp.com/ SelfRestraint is a Windows version, currently in BETA: http://parker.kuivi.la/projects/selfrestraint
- Know Your Child
- What’s your child doing online? If you haven’t yet done it, install parental controls, appropriate firewalls, and monitoring software on any device your child might use. View these lists from Top Ten Reviews and PC Mag for more information at: http://parental-software-review.toptenreviews.com/, http://www.pcmag.com/category2/0,2806,1639158,00.asp
- Beware of addiction--when tech takes over: If you’re concerned about your child’s (over)reliance on technology, determine if addiction may be at play. Draw on professional resources: your school counselor, pediatrician, or an addictions expert. Common Sense Media also provides resources for tech addiction and youth: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/advice-for-parents/setting-computer-limits-tips
Technology has the power to shape our brains, learning, and society in unprecedented ways. And sometimes we forget: we’re in charge of it, not the other way around. We don’t need to sacrifice all of our time or the very real human connections that we value, to the altar of technology. By having meaningful conversations and setting effective limits around tech use in our lives, we can harness its power and use it for our own.
 Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds is the third in a series of large-scale, nationally representative surveys by the Foundation. It includes data from all three waves of the study (1999, 2004, and 2009), and is among the largest and most comprehensive sources of information for media use among American youth.