I think one of the hardest things about parenting right now is technology use.
When I was a kid my parents were warned about too much screen time with the TV.
The battlefield is WAY different now.
We have a house with 4 kids; all of different ages, all different needs. Trying to make smart decisions on technology use, especially with virtual learning and COVID has been interesting to say the least. There’s a lot that goes into these decisions; the amount of screen time, risks of internet/social media, social/peer engagement, all the things.
I’m not going to tell anyone what decisions to make in their homes regarding technology use but I am going to talk about the things I focused on while we made our decisions and why they were important to us. I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach to much but considering factors should be looked at regardless. This way when you make a decision about this you are considering it from all angles.
The areas we looked at to figure out what would work best for us were:
Risk of device addiction
Increase of risky behavior
Communication needs/social/peer engagement
We know that technology is hugely addictive. Studies show over and over how the overuse of technology (especially social media) creates a dopamine addiction that is VERY difficult to break. And the risk for this isn’t limited to just kids. Plenty of adults are completely consumed by their devices. The use of the media creates a feedback loop that works by having you engage in behavior as you receive a reward via “friend” interaction.
This addictive tendency is even more significant for kids and teens because their brains are still developing. Until about 21 the brain is still making connections and growing. It actually limits their learning in real social interactions, making it harder for them to make connections with others outside of tech. It really is pretty intense. A great example of this kind of thing is just asking yourself if your child (let’s say 8 and up) can appropriately invite someone into the home if there's a knock on the door. Or if that same child would be able to answer a landline phone and know what to do if the call wasn’t for them. I mean would they even answer the phone at all?
(you can find out more about social media addiction here)
Because of these addictive tendencies, most professionals recommend limiting the use of “screen time” to 2 hours per day.
The first time I really even thought about social media as an addictive thing (at least the first time I remember hearing about it) was when Simon Sinek spoke about it with Tom Bilyeu - you can find the video here. I was completely stunned. And it was terrifying to think about.
I even thought about it for myself. Was I addicted to social media?
At the time of me watching that video, I fear I may have been. I’m happy to report at this time that I am not - though it isn’t without pretty constant observation. And certainly, I have some days where I just need a break and spend a lot more time on FB or Pinterest (my preferred platforms). But most days I don’t find myself on it constantly. I have purposely built-in time for me to NOT be on my device.
The thought of it changing how our children’s brains function though is really significant. So this concept of devices being addictive was a powerful one for me when it came to deciding how to handle tech for my kids.
Speaking of media addiction, have you watched Social Dilemma on Netflix?
Watch it. You can leave a comment later with what you think.
2. I’ll admit that my first real fear in regard to my children and the Internet was actually increased risky behavior. When I was in high school the Internet was just sort of becoming a thing. I think at the time AOL was really the online place to be, with chat rooms. Some were connected to games (I played WarCraft) and others based on other interesting areas.
I remember being inundated by my mom with messages about people on the internet who weren’t who they said they were. I was told they could be predators, they could be looking for me.
It was terrifying.
It was scary enough that even as a woman in my 30s I was extremely careful about who I gave my contact information out to and how I engaged with people online. And that was AFTER I had children. While this fear and risk is real I’ve also come to learn it’s actually not the most likely issue your child will face. The pressure of their online presence and being “liked” in combination with cyberbullying and just not understanding what information should be kept private (think identity theft) is way more likely to be the problem then predators looking to harm your kids.
All of that though was, in fact, the primary motivating factor for me originally getting a Facebook account. I’m pretty sure I started my account in 2007 - that would have been about a year after it was available to anyone. My daughter was maybe 24 months.
I was reading a blog about it and thought to myself. I will have to get a membership because if I don’t know how the technology works, I won’t be able to keep my kids safe. The fear of risks online prompted me to stay educated about new technology before my child ever even held a device.
And as I said the risks are very real. I can tell you now though that my primary concern is regular teenage behavior that can’t be taken back once it’s in the ether. There can seem to be a real disconnect with understanding that even if you DM someone doesn’t mean that information is private. The metaphor I have read was it being like your child having a diary but then laying the diary out on the coffee table, not really private anymore. That combined with the knowledge of increased depression and anxiety from using social media and we have some pretty significant reasons to limit our children’s time with it. All these things have been linked to the addiction tendencies of media use as well. It just spirals everything so far out of control, and there is no escape with a device the way there is when you come home from school
But then reality hits. Which brings me to point three - communication and social engagement
3. Communication needs are actually a thing for us in our home and not just because of the recent COVID issues. Between my son’s autism and my step-daughter’s non-verbal needs, having screen time is something that is just an unavoidable reality. And I’ll be honest, when you have two children with special needs sometimes you really do need a break. We do our best to not let everyone on the screen constantly but the truth is everyone is on quite a lot - especially this year.
I have long ago been ok with the reality that I use technology to make sure that my kids are busy so I can have a mental break. We use technology sometimes if my son is having trouble settling at a restaurant while we wait for food. We do it for the same reason for my step daughter. And while we work hard to not use tech at the table both myself and my partner work remotely at sometimes off hours - when we are on call, we are on call. I find it difficult to hold my other kids to that rule if we are using tech, and their siblings are using tech. And with a teen that need for fairness is important.
And a two hour recommendation goes right out the window when school is happening on the screen. I’ll be honest I’m actually pretty proud of how well I’ve done with keeping my son off the screen this last year given everything.
The other part of this communication piece though is just normal kid engagement today. I do have two typically developing kids. If you do some research you will see that the VAST majority of them are communicating with each other through mobile devices. This is so frustrating but it is what it is. And you are perfectly fine to disagree with me but I think those social relationships are important enough to allow at least some controlled use of tech.
Our kids also spend part of the year out of state with the other parent - we use tech to keep in touch. And not just a phone call, we watch movies online, play games together and we ENCOURAGE them to play games with their friends (also out of state) to maintain those social relationships while they are away.
Again - you are perfectly fine to not agree with me. I know the reasons for limiting and don’t think they aren’t real; for us the benefits just outway the risks of such limited screen time.
And while that is all well and go we do not let our kids just do whatever they want online whenever they want to do it. Which is point 4.
Responsibility and independence are SO important for our children. Our kids need to know how to be adults. More than that - they need to learn how to parent themselves after 18. The goal in having children is to raise functional, healthy, happy adults that can make the world a better place for future generations. That’s the reason to have children as far as I’m concerned.
You can hate every piece of it but tech is in our lives and it is not going anywhere. Just like sex and drugs I believe that if we don’t educate our kids on the way to use technology appropriately then we are just setting them up to learn really hard, painful lessons in their 20s.
Research backs this up (I am providing a list of articles if you are interested in further reading). Not only do teens need increasingly more independence, and ultimately trust from you that they can handle it, they also need to have these skills in order to stay safe when a parent isn’t constantly over their shoulder. With that in mind we have a structured system for monitoring our kids while they are online with abilities to earn more independence as they age and demonstrate responsibility and trustworthiness.
For example - our 10 year old doesn't have access to the same things as our 16 year old. That is in part because of age. Which directly impacts the fact that our 16 year old is able to manage her own workload, keep up on school schedules/work schedule and has demonstrated that she can be trusted to make good decisions. She is still monitored, but there’s a little more wiggle room.
It’s important to note that the wiggle room certainly didn’t happen fast enough for our oldest but sometimes that’s the way of it. 😄
In addition she can also earn additional independence with time and more demonstrated responsibility. Some of that responsibility is demonstrating that she can set and keep her own limits online. If we decide that 1 hour a day is enough time on TikTok and she holds to that over the course of a few months - maybe she can have access to an app that was previously not available to her. Likewise when there is a slip up she can lose some of that independence.
To me, especially after reading the research, this just makes sense. Parenting, I’ve come to believe, is about teaching skills. Adulting skills. Not the most fun thing but I want her to be able to handle things on her own. That means we want all our kids to be as confident as they can about things when they head out into the great big world.
The limits set for my son however are much more controlled. What he has access to and what he can do online. This isn’t just about age for him but also development skill, it’s a little more difficult for him to learn about some types of responsibility, so getting him there will take longer. And it ultimately might even be different.
We have taken this same approach to almost everything and it has served us well and we feel comfortable with how our children have developed because of it. As I said, I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach to things. It’s important to take the time to consider the things that impact your life and be on purpose with deciding how to create your home.
Remember guys - everything in your life is important to take time.
References - all of these sites also lead to additional resources that provide some fantastic information.