There’s no way to tackle family safety these days without a deep dive into tech and digital family safety. It’s everywhere—and just like you teach your kids to look both ways before they cross the road—you need to help your kids navigate digital street smarts and create a foundation of healthy tech habits.
It’s not easy. Parents are in a tough spot when it comes to setting boundaries around technology. Give kids too much, too soon, and it could be disastrous, dangerous, or even deadly.
There are years of studies and mountains of evidence highlighting the damage unchecked internet access and free-for-all screen time can have on a child’s brain development and cognitive function. It’s also linked to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, trouble in school, behavioral problems, and the list goes on.
On the other side of the screen time spectrum, though, parents who ban all tech all the time can end up with kids who either get left behind device-savvy peers or become more tech-obsessed overall.
A new wave of anecdotal evidence signifies total-tech crackdowns among preteens and teens can create sneaky little bingers who spend most of their waking hours jonesing for an eyeball full of pixels. (It reminds me of my friend who wasn’t allowed to eat sugar growing up, only to get caught shop-lifting candy bars in middle school.)
When it comes to modern technology, experts say kids need a guide, not a dictator.
What I’ve learned as a parent raising a daughter who is now 22—and by all accounts a successful and healthy citizen in both her online and offline worlds—gels with what I’ve come to understand covering this topic for more than a decade. It’s all about striking a balance, leading by example, learning from mistakes (theirs and yours), and allowing everyone in the family to grow along the way.
Here’s a crash course on some of the most significant issues.
WHAT’S THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF SCREENTIME FOR KIDS?
The “right” amount of tech time for a child is as different and varied as kids themselves.
Rather than rule the minutes, consider the content.
The most recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines say that not all screen time is equal.
It’s best to avoid totally passive “tune-in and zone-out” kind of content that turns them into little spinning-eyed zombies. Instead, for younger kids especially, opt for video calls with relatives, interactive and educational play (with you involved, too), and content creation, such as making digital art or music.
Common Sense Media outlines age-guided guardrails and stresses parental and caregiver involvement, especially for kids under the age of five:
- Under 18 months: Avoid screen time other than video chatting.
- Age 18–24 months: Find high-quality programming (if you choose to introduce screen time), and watch or play together.
- Age 2–5: Limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs.
- Create a family media plan with consistent rules, and enforce them for older kids.”
Things get more complicated as kids get older. Kids often start asking for cell phones between the ages of eight and 10. That’s when many parents, me included, want them to have a way to keep in touch and use location tracking to see where they are.
Before you buy your child any device, consider whether they’re ready:
- Why do they need it now, and what will they use it for?
- What are the ground rules — yours and theirs — for using it safely?
- Are you, and are they, ready to deal with the potential for online bullies, child predators, inappropriate content, access to social media, and all the other potential pitfalls of having their own device?
Most experts recommend waiting as long as possible to give a child a smartphone, and even then, to start with training wheel tech tailored to their age and experience. And remember, one of the best ways for you to teach kids healthy tech habits is to model good habits yourself.
RED FLAGS TO WATCH OUT FOR:
In the book “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World,” co-author and psychologist Jon Lasser points out a few warning signs that kids might have a problem with their digital development if they:
- Throw tantrums when you set screen time limits.
- Complain that they’re bored or unhappy when they don’t have access to technology.
- Let screen time interfere with sleep, school, and face-to-face communication.
HAVE ‘THE TECH TALK’ EARLY AND OFTEN
Another recurring theme with every expert and parent I talk with is how important open communication is around all aspects of life online. This includes everything from cyberbullying and video game addiction to online porn and identity theft.
“There’s never a point as a parent that you can check out on this,” family tech expert Sarah Werle Kimmel told me over the phone. After 20 years working in IT, she’s now raising two kids, ages 14 and 18, and helping other families navigate the many ups and downs of digital parenting.
Like me, Kimmel has reviewed nearly every parental control software, app, and specialty kids device available today. And while we agree tools are helpful, nothing takes the place of open and honest communication on top of having a solid relationship with your kids.
In other words, be a mentor, not just an always-lurking hall monitor.
“My kids have never tried to circumvent the parental control apps like Bark that I use to keep an eye on them online because it isn’t adversarial. It’s not like I’m spying on them, and they’re hiding things from me. We’ve always been open and honest; looking out for them online is my job as their mom.”
Consider this the new “birds and bees,” except it is even more complicated because it changes all the time.
WHEN THEY WANT TO SHOW YOU, LET THEM!
One of the hardest parts of digital parenting for me was putting my work aside and giving my daughter 100% attention when she wanted to show me her progress on Angry Birds for the four-thousandth time. But this kind of involvement in your child’s tech experience is significant.
It helps you get to know their interests better and create shared experiences you can bond over. It also helps build their self-esteem when you’re interested in what they’re doing, and even better if you let them teach you something along the way.
CREATE FAMILY TECH RULES TOGETHER
Remember, you’re setting the foundation for a lifetime of healthy tech use for your kids. Your ultimate goal here is to raise a person who can self-regulate, recognize when their screen time is getting in the way of their real lives, and feel confident enough to do something about it.
Common Sense Media has three different family tech plans for various age ranges that you can print out or fill out digitally. Kids feel more empowered and push back less on rules when they get a say in creating them with you.
GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF YOUR SMARTPHONE!
It’s critical to put your own smartphone down and tune in to what your kids are doing, learning, and needing overall—online and off. Create family no-tech zones and stick with them, like at the dinner table or driving to and from school. Create a healthy balance of time you spend together without any devices.
You know that whole saying about when you die, you won’t wish you worked harder or had more money, or whatever? I think about that a lot in terms of tech. When I die, I’ll never wish I had spent another second on social media or answered an email from work faster. I will, however, thank every lucky star in the galaxy and beyond for every single moment with my child. Yep, even the ones when she wanted me to watch her play Angry Birds.