Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

boys-cellphones-children-159395by Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World

A very common New Year’s Resolution is to spend less time online. This includes getting kids to spend less time online too. Not an easy feat.

Unless you spent last year under a rock, you surely know that there is a lot of debate surrounding the question: “How much time should kids spend online?” We’re still in the early days of devices, so not much is yet know about the long-term effects of screens upon kids’ brains. But that’s beginning to change. Last month CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a segment about the first-ever comprehensive study on this topic. Although the study is still underway, initial findings show that children who spend more than two hours per day with screens score lower on thinking and language skills than those who don’t. Yikes.

Anyone who has a kid these days knows that keeping their screen time limited to only two hours per day is a Herculean feat. Today’s tweens spend an average of six hours per day with screens, for teens its nine hours. That does not include the time they must spend on screens in school or for school. What’s a parent to do?

Ask Yourself Three Questions.

Counting the minutes that kids spend staring at screens is an exercise in futility. Today, screens are everywhere. They are at the supermarket checkout counter, in grandma’s house, and at every friend’s sleepover. While it’s always a good idea to be mindful of the amount of time your child spends online, it’s more important to consider these three questions: 

What?

Find out what your child is doing online. The best way to do this? Ask. Believe it or not, kids respond well to parental curiosity about their online lives, especially when they first get devices. So, ask them to show you how to use Snapchat. Inquire about the videos they’re watching on YouTube. Ask if they are learning something new. Lots of kids these days turn to YouTube to pursue new hobbies or interests or to practice their budding filmmaking skills. And, don’t forget this one—ask your child to show you how to play Fortnite. It’s harder than you think!

Why?

Instead of battling your children over how much time they spend online, spend a little time yourself investigating why they’re spending so much time with their screens.  For example, does your daughter spend hours sending “Snaps” to her friends? Ask yourself why. Perhaps she finds it easier to connect with her peers online than she does in real life. Does your son prefer playing online games to playing baseball? Maybe the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge during game play is an achievement he’s not experiencing elsewhere. Or perhaps he’s experiencing stress at school and gaming is providing a nice respite. Dig deep into your own memories to remember when you found it easier to talk to your peers on the phone that in real life, or when you watched a TV show that taught you something new. The only way you are going to discover why your child is spending time with screens is to talk to them. You may be surprised.

When?

Deciding when certain screens and the content they deliver is appropriate for your children is probably the most important question of all. For example, for the very young child, research supports in-person social interactions over screens, as time spent with screens detracts from the face-to-face contact, creative play, hands-on activities, and the physical movement that are the building blocks of healthy brain development. Face-to-face human interactions continue to be important as kids get older too. In a study conducted by researchers at UCLA, sixth-graders who went five days without looking at screens were substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who spent five days with their screens. And that was after only five days.

If you want to raise children who are as adept at reading real facial expressions as emoji’s, find out when certain media is suitable for their particular age and stage of development. In addition to gathering online resources to help you, this also calls on you to co-view content with your child. Even better, though much more time-consuming, is pre-viewing content and then deciding what is developmentally appropriate for your particular child. Whatever you do, remember that social media networks like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and nearly every other platform, require kids to be at least 13 years-old to open their own accounts.

Diana Graber is a digital literacy educator and advocate and author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology . She is the cofounder of Cyberwise, a leading online safety and digital literacy organization, and the founder and creator of Cyber Civics, a popular and innovative middle school digital citizenship and literacy program currently being taught in more than 40 U.S. states, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Africa.