Technology is hip, cool, and exciting, making modern life both enjoyable and possible. Social media! Dating apps! Transportation as a service! Watches that count steps and tell the time. Cool! There’s so much to love and so much to explore. It’s endlessly fascinating and shiny.
Technology does, however, have a negative side. It’s highly addicting, particularly for developing minds. Technology’s impact on young, developing minds is now well understood scientifically. It could all result from brain damage, health issues, despair, loneliness, safety issues, and sleep issues.
The good news is that with a few common-sense changes, we can do that will our children in beneficial ways.
Understand That Technology Isn’t Your Babysitter
As a parent, you’re responsible for far more than just handing your child a tablet and saying, “Have fun!” Having and using technology in the home is an investment in your child’s future, and that investment necessarily requires your personal time, patience, and dedication.
If you’re not ready to understand and monitor how technology gets used by your kids, then please, don’t give them any. This might sound harsh, but as parents, you’ll need to educate yourself about technology and get involved to implement it safely for your children.
Teach Your Children How to Be Upstanding Netizens
Do you let your children run screaming through the supermarket? Do you stand idly and watch as they push or bully a child who doesn’t look like them?
No? Then don’t let them behave that way online.
Take the time to teach them how to be kind in person and online. Show them the difference between kind and rude comments and ensure they understand. And when you talk about “the birds and the bees,” include the part about online sex. That includes selfies, sexting, and nudity, even in pictures that disappear like the kind Snapchat offers.
Parents are responsible for ensuring their children understand that no one should ever touch them inappropriately or send them inappropriate photos. Ditto for teaching your children not to be the ones to do the touching or the sexting. Good netizens start with good parenting.
Limit, Restrict, or Prevent Screen Time for Any Minor
If you were born before, say, 1984, then you grew up without interactive smartphones and tablets. Instead, you found and played with actual frogs instead of looking at frog videos on an app. You played on the jungle gym in the backyard with friends instead of gathering online in a chat room. You played board games in person—seated at the very same table!—rather than being separated by technology and playing your turn in isolation.
Somehow, you turned out OK, so remember that your children will benefit from the same approach. Make that decision for them and help them become healthy, socialized humans. Life online awaits them for the rest of their adult lives, but they only have one childhood. Let them enjoy it in the ways that you remember enjoying it too.
Invest in some Legos, Lincoln Logs, electronic science kits, and good old-fashioned trips to museums, theaters, and planetariums. And don’t forget hikes in the forest, walks on the beach, and paddling out on the lake to experience some nature up close.
Teach That Technology at Home Is an Earned Privilege, Not a Right
Think of technology—and social media in particular—as our parents used to think about television when we were kids: a limited privilege in limited locations. When we got home from school, we got to watch one hour of cartoons on the TV in the basement before we had to start our homework. Homework was done in our bedrooms, with no TVs or phones. If our grades or behavior were poor, the privilege of TV was revoked, sometimes for a month.
These concepts are valid for today’s parents regarding technology, so don’t shy away from strict rules and guidelines. Limit the total time online or in front of a screen, don’t allow computer technology in the bedroom, and treat technology as a privilege.
Restrict or Avoid Social Media
There’s no easy way to put this, so we won’t sugarcoat it: You should protect your children (and yourselves) from using social media for as long as possible. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist, wrote in the Atlantic that “teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. Considering that in 2011 for the first time in more than two decades, suicide caused more teen deaths than homicide, that kind of research is something to take seriously.
A 13-year-old girl Twenge interviewed said, “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” In most cases, social media isolates people. That isolation can cause loneliness, fear of missing out (FOMO), and comparing someone’s curated online life of seeming perfection to the varied, flawed lives we all live. Teens whose minds are still developing don’t understand this concept and are at high risk without your help and structure. Help your children by educating them about the differences between online life and real life and giving them a real-life away from any electronic devices.
Be a Parent, Not a Friend
Your children’s friends and acquaintances will—at some point—encourage your children to do wild, wacky, and sometimes unsafe things. Of course, you’ll do the opposite and advise, protect, and encourage your children to grow into responsible adults. Your child is not your friend. That means you’ll say “no” to many crazy requests, ideas, and notions.
Get comfortable with that when it comes to technology. If you see your child asking her aunts and uncles to see their smartphones upon first seeing them, explain to them why this isn’t okay with you. Also: Make sure this isn’t okay with you!