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Internet Addiction

Teaching Accountability in a Digital World

How to use screen time as a tool for explaining what it means to be accountable.

Key points

  • Accountability is fundamental to a productive life and a healthy society.
  • It is never too early for parents to model accountability for their children.
  • With regard to Internet bullying, make sure your child understands that everything on the Internet can be traced, and legal action can be taken.
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Accountability is one of the best behaviors we can instill in our children. It is fundamental to a productive life and a healthy society. As society rapidly changes with ever-evolving technologies, social behaviors—and how we teach them—must adapt. Today, so much of our daily lives is experienced through the virtual world. This is especially true of our children, who are often in constant interaction with screens. From school to home life, digital reality dominates the world of our young people. Less face-to-face interactions, combined with the anonymity and lack of consequences often characterized by the Internet, create new obstacles for teaching young people appropriate social behavior. It has fundamentally changed how we teach and implement accountability. How can you explain to your children what it means to be accountable, especially in this new digital age?

A Learned Behavior

First and foremost, accountability is a learned behavior. As with all things, parents must lead by example. Many parents are unsure when they should start teaching accountability. It is never too early to model accountability, so start now. Use situations in which you hold yourself accountable as teaching moments for your child. Accountability means you can be relied upon, and that you are responsible for following through. When you tell your child something, it is very important that you hold yourself accountable for what was said. For example, if you are on the phone and your child is asking for your attention, let them know you'll be off the phone in X minutes (I suggest starting with 10 minutes). Set a timer your child can visually see, and follow through with what you told them. At the 10 minute mark, give all of your attention to your child. You did what you said you would do. This is a great way to teach your child the concept of accountability by demonstrating the desired behavior. As another example, if you want them to use their phones less or read more, put your phone away at dinner, or get a library book out and read it in front of them.

As they get older, technology will influence social behavior more and more. If you set screen time boundaries, for example, hold your child to those boundaries. If you say, “No screen time after 8 pm,” but you find your child is still on the tablet, take the tablet away for a night. Keep punishments short and hold to them. I have started to tell my daughters I will put screen time limits on their phones if they can’t hold to the limits on their own. Once a week, I check how much time they are spending on their devices. It has worked better than more punitive measures, and they learn to control themselves better knowing I will put the measure back if they don't follow the rules.

When it comes to accountability on the Internet, make it clear to your children that an Internet profile is still an extension of themselves, and they are responsible for their actions on the Internet. Internet bullying is something I see many children struggle with. It is easy to use an avatar to behave in a way you would not in the real world. However, IP addresses can be tracked, and your avatar, screen name, or handle should never do anything you would not do in real life. Make sure your child understands everything on the Internet can be traced, and legal action can be taken.

I recommend random and frequent cell phone checks with your child. Sit down and flip through their phone with them to monitor their online behavior and hold them accountable for their actions on their phones. If your child has a cell phone and wants to engage with a new app, you should sit down and learn about the app with them. Ask your child to teach you how to use the app, and make sure you understand how to keep them safe while using it.

If you are a two-parent household, make sure you and your partner are vocalizing the same narrative surrounding accountability. If you and your partner are disconnected on how to enforce consequences, and/or what your child should be held accountable for, it can be very confusing for the child and frustrating for you. If you are raising your child between two households, do not fret if your co-parent isn’t following the same system as you. Children are able to understand different rule systems between households. Be as consistent as you can with rules, consequences, and accountability in your household for the higher likelihood of the desired result.

Praise Good Behaviors

Praise your child who is doing well with their accountability at all times, and catch them being good! Praise them for reading, for shutting off their devices at dinner, for playing without electronics, etc. Parents tend to notice when kids mess up, but when they are doing really well, they ignore it. Praise can come in all forms; I recommend sticker charts so kids can see how close they are to a reward.

Our dependency on the digital world will continue to evolve, as should your parenting style.

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