From preschoolers watching too much TV to teens sexting with their smartphones, there’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to overseeing your children’s use of tech devices. KIWI’s child and family psychologist helps you navigate.
When the parents in my practice talk to me about their kids’ use of technology, these are the concerns I hear: They’re afraid they’ll lose control over what their kids are doing, that their kids will do something dangerous or inappropriate, or that their kids will be exposed to content they don’t understand.
And those fears are valid, given how pervasive technology is in our society and that most children have access to it from a young age. Your goal shouldn’t be to halfheartedly monitor technology; it should be to actively prevent problems—particularly with younger children. Once they get to high school there’s very little you can do to control what they’re viewing, so I encourage parents to do their very best to guide them in the right direction by the time they finish middle school.
This is a challenging job, and it begins when kids are old enough to watch something on a screen. Here are the guidelines I recommend:
Limit screen time to two hours a day. This is two hours’ total time, including TV, video games, handheld games, computers, and cellphones. Many parents think watching educational programs doesn’t count, but it does. It’s better than some other options but still not the equivalent of interacting with human beings or playing with three-dimensional objects.
Pay attention to ratings. They matter, and I advise using them to help choose TV shows, movies, and video games. (Commonsensemedia.org is an excellent resource.) If you have an older child who is allowed to watch PG-13 movies and you also have a younger child, set a rule that the PG-13 material can’t be on when the younger one is watching. Once kids have seen something sexual, violent, or otherwise inappropriate, they can’t un-see it. It’s in their brain.
Password-protect your TVs and computers. This can help you meet the two-hour-a-day limit and also protect your kids from seeing inappropriate content.
Don’t let a young child use a computer alone. This is the best way to make sure kids don’t accidentally access content you don’t approve of. Sit next to them and use it with them.
Keep TVs out of kids’ bedrooms. Once they’re there, you have no control over what or how much they’re watching. I advise following this advice until kids go to college.
Place computers in a central location. And monitor what kids are doing. For older kids, establish an “open door” policy—if they’re in their bedroom with a laptop, the door must remain open and you should check in from time to time.
Monitor their phone. I advise holding off on giving your child a phone for as long as you can, but for most families the time seems to be when kids are going into middle school. Whenever you decide to provide a phone, make it clear to kids from the beginning that it’s not theirs. You are giving them the privilege of using it, but you are entitled to check it anytime you want. And then follow through: Check their texts and their apps. Some parents put software on their kids’ phones so they can monitor what they’re doing and block certain sites. In most cases I don’t think this is necessary, but for parents who are really worried or have kids who have been out of control, it’s not a bad idea. And if kids give you a hard time about checking their phone, I would install the software.
Consider a gradual introduction to a smartphone. One option is to hold off on giving kids a smartphone for the first year. You can give a basic phone as a first step to see how they do and then upgrade if you wish. Another approach is to provide a smartphone but allow texting only and delay the introduction of Internet access.
Get their passwords. Tell your kids that until they enter high school you need their passwords to everything: phone, computer, and social media. Make it clear that if they don’t provide the passwords, they will lose the privilege of using their phone or computer. After age 14, if your child proves responsible, this should no longer be necessary.
Friend or follow your child on all social media—with no areas blocked. In exchange for this, you can agree not to comment, “like,” or otherwise make your presence known to their social media world if they prefer that you don’t. You will simply observe. If you have concerns about anything you see, address them with your child off-line. It’s also a good idea to have other family members and friends friend/follow your child as extra sets of watchful eyes.
Teach kids about their digital footprint. Make sure they understand that everything they do is public and can be traced and that what- ever they post stays on the Internet forever.Teach them never to post or send anything that could be compromising, whether naked photos or hurtful comments. Anything they share can be shared with hundreds of other people within seconds and has the potential to be embarrassing or hurtful to themselves or others. Even if kids are angry or upset or don’t like someone, they need to avoid sharing feelings or comments that are inappropriate.
Also teach them about online privacy. They should never communicate with or accept a friend request from someone they don’t know online. And if someone unfamiliar tries to contact them, they should tell you. Likewise, they should never share their full name, address, phone number, birthday, school, current location, vacation dates or location, or any other personal information. If you notice that your kids have done so, don’t react angrily because this may cause them to go underground with social media activity. Rather, use it as a teachable moment.
Remember that you are your child’s role model when it comes to technology use. Resist the urge to constantly check your phone or computer. And don’t post photos of your kids that they don’t want you to post. It’s difficult to enforce rules for kids that the adults in their lives don’t follow.