As mentioned in our first column about kids and technology, we often begin our parenting presentations by asking the audience what their biggest concern or worry is. Technology, screen time, the internet and social media are always among the first and most common answers.
Parents say things like, "Virtual reality is replacing real reality," "My kids are hypnotized by those little screens and I can't even get their attention," "Social media can be such a cruel, bullying place," "I just can't keep them off of the internet, and I'm scared to death of what might pop up" or "They are so addicted to those online games that I can't tear them away."
Questions abound, such as, "How can I be totally aware of what they are seeing?" "Do any of the filters really work?" "How can they use the internet for homework but not get off onto other sites?" "How much should I limit their screen time?" "If I clamp down too hard, will it just make them want it more and find it on their friend's phone or at their friend's house?"
In our previous column, we explored technology as an addiction. We outlined some of the widely varying approaches we have seen parents take, from complete immersion (embrace it, no restrictions) to complete abstinence (no smartphones, no internet other than for homework) and everything in between. Since that first article, we have had many requests for answers for how parents can both understand and regulate what is happening.
So, for what it is worth, here are three guidelines that we think every parent should consider:
No computers or tablets or smartphones in kids' bedrooms. Keep everything in the kitchen, family room or common areas of the home. Get the best filters you can find (routers are now available that filter content and that can also be set to automatically shut off at dinner time, nighttime and other times that you don't want kids online).
2. Talk extensively with kids both about how wonderful technology can be and about how dangerous it can be. Ask a lot of questions and get kids involved in the discussion. Ask kids what they think the limits should be. You may be surprised at how much they know and find that the limits they suggest may be stricter than what you would set.
Get their input on what age they think kids should have smartphones and on how much screen time should be allowed in the home. Make it clear that you are the one setting the rules and limits but that you want their input. Remember, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.
For young kids who you want to be able to call or text but who you do not want on social media, the simplest solution is a "dumb phone" rather than a smartphone. When kids reach the required age that you have set, decide together how much your son or daughter should pay on his or her smartphone and on the monthly bill. The percentage of how much the child contributes should be 49 percent or less so you are the controlling owner, which allows you to draft an agreement that includes turning in the phone each evening. Make it clear that "privacy" is not something that exists between kids and their parents and that you will have apps that allow you to see everything they see or send on their smartphones.
Remember that you will not always be around to enforce technology rules and that ultimately your children's use of or abuse of anything electronic will come down to their own choices and self-control. Kids have a natural and instinctive ability to discern between something that feels good or right and something that feels dark or wrong.
The best long-term solution for helping our children deal with the internet and social media is to help them understand and trust their feelings of discernment and move away from (turn off) anything that feels dark and gravitate to the things that feel light.
The real problem with this whole area of concern is that it takes time and concentration to deal with it. As parents and grandparents, we need to know what is going on and understand and be familiar with technology and how our kids interact with and are influenced by it. Then we need to have open communication with our children and have them teach us as well as learn from us. We need to think of technology as a tool that can bring much good into our lives and that, with enough effort on our parts, can be controlled and used rather than feared and avoided.