Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock
Source: Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock

Managing digital technology isn’t easy.  It’s hard enough to get a handle on your own use, but making good decisions for your kids about access to screen time and the use of mobile devices is confusing at best. It doesn’t help that the advice keeps changing.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), well-known for its uber-conservative recommendations, has relaxed its earlier guidelines restricting the use of screen time. Yet they continue to issue reports on the dangers of technology use for kids. Even as they revise their rules, the AAP is missing the point and perpetuating technophobia. Media and technology aren’t some evil to be avoided. They are an integral part of our society. Technology, mobile devices, tablets, social media and all the rest aren’t going away. In fact, they are getting more sophisticated and able to enable many new opportunities and experiences. Rather than viewing this trend as barbarians at the gate, we have to focus on what makes all of us, children included, whole and healthy human beings and then see where technology can support our goals. A more important question is what are your kids doing without any media?

If this reminds you of the ever-changing food pyramid and what we’re supposed to eat to be healthy, there’s good reason. What the AAP isn’t very good at saying is that they, like the food scientists, were wrong in their initial assessment. But where the food scientists are getting better information (we hope) due to technological advances in science, the same is not true for the AAP, as Chris Ferguson argues in the HuffPost.  There’s more research, to be sure, but what they don’t tell you is that doing research on media impact is really hard because media happens in context, not in a laboratory. Life is messy. It’s not possible to isolate any single variable over time without other things getting in the way. Thus, what they don’t tell you is this: there are no hard and fast rules about media use.

But, as every parent know, rules still have to be made. To help parents make sense out of media use for their children, the AAP has developed an online Media Planning Tool.  This tool recognizes that everyone is different. It takes you through several questions about media use so that you can establish a set of ground rules for your family.

I’m in favor of any tool that puts the decision-making in the hands of the user.  While the Media Planning tool is a good idea, the exercise may be a bit more complicated and time-consuming than makes sense for many of today’s busy parents—particularly those who aren’t particularly tech-savvy or computer literate.

AAP Ignores the New Normal

The AAP and their Media Planning Tool ignore a really critical thing: the fundamental shifts that are making managing digital media use an issue at all. This is our new normal.  Technology is part of the fabric of everyday life for kids in a way that most of us parents will probably never understand. Yes, technology is competing for our attention, but the presumption inherent in all the AAP (and many others’) guidelines is that this is always a bad thing. This assumption is problematic. Technology is doing all kinds of things and it’s not going away. Treating technology like it’s something to be guarded against starts you off on the wrong foot and distracts you from the real goal that is about a lot more than screen time—raising healthy kids.

Look at the Big Picture

Parents and caretakers need to get a grip on the larger picture before they start making the rules for how many hours a kid can watch TV. Just like a business takes stock of the environment and their mission before creating their operational tactics, it’s important for you to consider the big picture in order to make a sustainable and adaptive (kids grow) plan for media and technology use in your home.

Change Your Perspective

Quit thinking of online worlds as separate from offline. Your kids don’t. Quit using expressions like “real life” versus online life or “real friends” versus Facebook friends. Hanging on to this dichotomy will make all your decision about media use harder. We all know the difference between acquaintances, say that guy you wave at down the block when he walks his dog, and close friends with whom you share your life’s ambitions. You still know the guy down the street well enough to ask for sugar or help in an emergency. Why should the network of online friends be any different? 

Once you make this shift in perspective, you will be better able to help your kids see that the rules you follow in life, such as how to behave, kindness, and respect and what you say or share, aren’t all that different online and offline. You want to raise good citizens. Your kids need to learn those skills and values. Help your kids see that it applies across the board and that there aren’t exceptions just because you’re “online.”

Apply Common Sens

Making good decisions about media comes down to common sense, as with most things. Parents worried when first radios and then TVs become household items. Now they have serious concerns about digital technology. Everyone (including parents) should recognize there is a tendency to worry about anything that is new. It makes sense that parents should be especially worried because they are trying to navigate a rapidly changing world and walking the fine line between providing opportunities for growth and mature development while protecting their kids from undue risk and harm. If you think you’re scared, think how your kids feel. You have to make all kinds of decisions to guide kids through life, not just through social media. Let your decisions be guided by your fundamental goals, values and morals, not fear of the unknown.

Talk TO (not AT or ABOUT) Your Kids

Start a conversation with kids early about technology use and behaviors so that you are a trusted source. Don’t assume that kids understand everything about technology because they can text at lightning speed. They don’t and you don’t have to. You have wisdom on your side. Yes, the world is different now, but trust is trust. You can talk about technology in terms of behaviors. If you have laid the foundation of trust, your kids can explain to you how things work and why they like them so that you can explain your point of view. Newspaper articles and examples from social events make great teaching moments to talk about what’s going on, potential hazards and upsides. Don’t threaten to end their social life by taking away their phone just because you’re freaked out that some harm will befall them. There are risks everywhere from the shopping mall to driving in the car.

Safety comes from Critical thinking, Maturity and Self-regulation

These are the tough jobs of a parent. Letting out the leash of freedom as kids demonstrate their maturity. This is true of technology as well as everything else. If you don’t think your child is old enough to understand the risks, from surfing the Internet to not running into traffic, then you need to restrict access. But just like teaching a kid not to run into the street after their soccer ball, you have to teach kids the dangers of technology. Digital technologies are powerful tools. Like a hammer, they can be used for good as well as bad. It’s important for kids to know the difference in a realistic, not reactionary way.

Follow the Rules You Expect your Kids to Follow

If you want your kids to pay attention to you and not their phone when you talk with them, then make sure you pay attention to them when they want to talk with you. With older kids, have mutually agreed upon rules. You need buy-in for compliance from kids as well as everyone else in your life. You also need to model the behaviors you want your kids to copy.

The really hard question: what do we do about really young kids?

Healthy Screen Time is About Balance

As I said, there are no hard and fast rules about screen time. But focusing on digital technology is a negative stance. It’s the time-honored medical model which fixes disease and looks for problems. It isn’t about doing what works well, it’s about fixing a problem or curing disease. A better and more important question is what are you replacing the media with? Or even, what are your kids doing when they don't have any media?

Years of research have shown that there are specific activities that are important for healthy development of young children. Most of them are also common sense and will seem familiar, if not totally obvious: 

  • Active play is healthier for kids than passive activities. It allows them to develop social skills, fine motor coordination, cognitive ability and self-regulation.
  • Time spent interacting with parents or caretakers and sharing an activity helps them learn language, empathy and build stronger emotional bonds. 
  • Larger periods of inactivity increase the probability of health problems such as obesity.
  • Adequate sleep is important for healthy development. The light from screens too close to bed can suppress melatonin levels and make it harder to sleep.  Interactive content and social engagement is stimulating and makes it harder to relax. Content stimulation isn’t just a technology issue. Reading a thriller before bed can have the same effect.
  • Doing homework results in higher academic achievement. Social goals are going to be greater for teens than any other. Recognize this cognitive and emotional bias as a natural instinct, not irresponsible behavior. You can provide structure and encouragement without threatening social deprivation.
  • Families who eat together (and talk with each other) are more likely to have closer relationships which encourage trust, sharing and problem-solving. The invisible benefit is the chemical reward of oxytocin released by your brain when it feels love and connection. This improves mood and fights against depression.

I doubt that most of these things, other than maybe the melatonin and oxytocin, come as surprises. If you are mindful of these and keep these as guiding values, then you will make healthy decisions about technology. Trying to follow artificial time limits such as recommended by the AAP can drive you nuts.  All the AAP rules should really be telling you is to stay focused on what’s important, be guided by your own values, and don’t let media replace all the other things we know result in positive outcomes. 

Get Good Content

Pay attention to the content your kids consume whey they are engaged with media, whether TV or mobile devices. You will be amazed at the great iPad games and interactive books available for toddlers that involve creative problem solving, media creation, learning letters and numbers and building environments. Channels devoted to children’s programming, like Sprout, make a serious effort to provide age appropriate themes and stories. 

Evidence suggests that when parents are involved, kids learn more. This is true of reading (which, by the way, is also ‘media’) as well as what kids see on a screen.  Be involved when your kids start using the Internet, media content or mobile devices.  Empower them by teaching them to think rather than putting blocking software on your devices. You can’t control every device everywhere, but you can instill good values and critical thinking in your child.

Don’t Be Judgmental

If you are conscientious, concerned and trying hard to have your kids’ best interests at heart, you are making the “right” decisions. If you have lot to do and give your pre-schooler an iPad, you are not a bad parent. Be aware of how often it happens and make an effort to interact in other ways when you do have time. It’s about balance, like eating vegetables and ice cream. 

If someone else has a different view about media than you do, get used to it.  Just like every kid is different, so is every parent. My kids used screens quite a bit—WAY more than the AAP would recommend. We also read a lot, baked stuff and made craft projects. One grew up to be a software engineer, the other a teacher. Both are fields where having a good relationship with technology is very valuable

Be "Good Enough"

Don't judge yourself, either. Back in the 1950s, the psychologist Winnicott put forth the theory that there was a “good enough” mother—one who tries to adapt to a child’s emerging needs but sometimes fails. According to the theory, that failure to adapt to our child’s every need is what allows the child to grow and mature.  It turns out the “good enough” really is good enough. There is no possible way to make all the “right” decisions, to follow the guidelines established by the AAP or anyone else. You know your child. You try hard. Trust your judgment.

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