Technology is hip, cool, and exciting, and it makes modern life both enjoyable and possible. Social media! Dating apps! Transportation as a service! Watches that count steps and tell the time?! There’s so much to love and so much to explore. It’s endlessly fascinating and shiny.
Technology in your home is your responsibility. Do it safely or don’t do it.
However, technology also has a dark side. It’s very, very, addictive, especially to young minds. The science behind how technology affects young, developing minds is becoming clear, and it may even cause brain damage, health problems, depression, and loneliness as well as safety and sleep problems. This is serious, heavy stuff, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.
The good news is that with a few common-sense changes to how we understand and use technology, we can help our children in some beneficial ways.
1. Understand that technology isn’t your babysitter
As a parent, you’re responsible for far more than just handing your child a tablet and saying, “Have fun!” Having and using technology in the home is an investment in your child’s future, and that investment necessarily requires your personal time, patience, and dedication.
If you’re not ready to understand and monitor how technology gets used by your kids, then please, don’t give them any. Technology in your home is your responsibility. Do it safely or don’t do it.
2. Teach your children how to be upstanding Netizens
Do you let your children run screaming through the supermarket? Do you let them flash their genitals at the coffee shop? Do you stand idly and watch as they push or bully a child who doesn’t look like them?
No? Then don’t let them behave that way online.
Good netizens start with good parenting.
Take the time to teach them how to be kind, both in person and online. Show them the difference between kind and rude comments and make sure they understand the difference. And when you talk about “the birds and the bees,” include the part about online sex. That includes selfies, sexting, and nudity, even in pictures that disappear like the kind Snapchat offers.
Parents are responsible for ensuring their children understand that no one should ever touch them inappropriately or send them inappropriate photos.
3. Limit, restrict, or prevent screen time for any minor
If you were born before, say, 1984, then you grew up without interactive smartphones and tablets. Instead, you found and played with actual frogs instead of looking at frog videos on an app; you played on the jungle gym in the backyard with friends instead of gathering online in a chat room; you played board games in person—seated at the very same table!—rather than being separated by technology and playing your turn in isolation.
Somehow, magically, you turned out just fine, so remember: Your children will benefit from the same approach. Make that decision for them and help them become healthy, socialized humans in the process. Life online awaits them for the rest of their adult lives, but they only have one childhood.
Invest in some Legos, board games or rather enjoy some leisure time in Mother Nature.
4. Teach that technology at home is an earned privilege, not a right
I encourage parents to think of technology—and social media in particular—as my parents used to think about television when I was a kid: a limited privilege in limited locations. When we got home from school, we got to watch one hour of TV before we had to start our homework. Homework was done in our bedrooms, where there were no TVs or phones. If our grades or behavior were poor, the privilege of TV was revoked, sometimes for as much as two weeks.
Let your kids know that you’re watching what they do both for their own safety and for the safety of others.
These same concepts are true for today’s parents regarding technology, so don’t shy away from strict rules and guidelines. Limit the total time online or in front of a screen, don’t allow computer technology in the bedroom, and treat technology as a privilege.
5. Only give children smartphones after they’ve demonstrated respect for the technology and balance with its usage
It’s important for you, as the parent, to understand the difference between a want and a need. Your 10-year-old child might want to text, email, and post on social media, but there’s no life-threatening need for this. However, you, as the responsible parent, need for your child to be able to contact you in an emergency situation.
Remember that using a smartphone requires a level of self-regulation that your children might not demonstrate until later than their peers. My advice? Smile, give them a hug, and explain the truth to them: Tech addiction is real and can sometimes lead to depression and suicide and that you love them too much to give them this awesome tool and challenging responsibility before it’s time.
6. Monitor what your children do online
Other than cartoons, we watched TV together as a family so that my folks could supervise what we watched. The same approach applies when kids surf online. If you decide to allow your child to have and use a smartphone, just know that you’re then also responsible for whatever that minor does with the smartphone—not just conceptually but legally.
Give your children — and yourselves — the gift of human interaction.
To help you better prevent these kinds of behaviors, there are any number of applications you can install on your smartphones or computers to monitor online activity. Be upfront about it. Let your kids know you’re watching what they do both for their own safety and for the safety of others. You no more want your kid to be cyberbullied or stalked by a creeper than you’d want to learn that your child is the one doing it. If you decide to allow your children to have and maintain social media accounts, inform them that you’ll be following them on those platforms—and then actually do that.
7. Restrict or avoid social media
There’s no easy way to put this, so I won’t sugarcoat it: You should protect your children (and yourselves) from using social media for as long as you can.
A 13-year-old girl interviewed said, “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” In most cases, social media isolates people. That isolation, in turn, causes loneliness, fear of missing out (FOMO), and comparing someone’s curated online life of seeming-perfection to the varied, flawed lives we all actually live. Teens, whose minds are still developing, don’t understand this concept and are at high risk without your help and structure. Help your children not only by educating them about the differences between online life and real life but by giving them a real life away from any electronic devices.
8. Strongly restrict what your children do online
If you have children, I’m guessing you don’t want them surfing porn on your home network or for their friends when they’re visiting at your home. My advice is to make it impossible for that to happen.
Free tools are available for you to filter your home Wi-Fi network, blocking any or all questionable websites.
9. Make mealtime about people, not technology
Nowadays, when we go out for dinner, we’re shocked by the number of families we see sitting at the dinner table who are all on their smartphones and tablets, not even interacting with one another. Sadly, we see the same when we visit the homes of our friends and family. We wonder how something like that could have happened, given that it wasn’t even possible 20 years ago.
Give your children—and yourselves—the gift of human interaction. Leave the technology away from the table when you’re eating together as a family. No text, social media post, email, or phone call is more important than family time
10. Be a Parent, Not a Friend
Your children’s friends and acquaintances will—at some point—encourage your children to do wild, wacky, and sometimes unsafe things. You’ll do the opposite, of course, and advice, protect, and encourage your children to grow into responsible adults. Your child is not your friend. That means you’ll be saying “no” to a lot of crazy requests, ideas, and notions.
Get comfortable with that when it comes to technology. You can save your child from many potential risky situations.