Kids and technology: a complicated relationship.
Kids and technology: a complicated relationship. (Photo: shutterstock.com)

Kids and technology: what's OK?

It starts early, this epic battle with technology that we parents face. It’s a love-hate relationship, really. We love technology for the times that it distracts our children so that we can cook dinner. We love it for the times that it teaches them new things, or helps them to complete their homework. We love it for the times that it helps them channel their imagination and create something new. 

But for all of the good things technology brings our kids, we fear the dangers, too. Cyberbullying, sexting, child predators, obscenities, childhood obesity, and gaming addictions are just a few of the risks we take when we enter this ever-growing technological labyrinth.

The overprotective mom in me wants to keep my kids sheltered from these dangers. But deep down I know that that would be like building a fence around a pool. I can keep them out for awhile, but what I really need to do is teach them to swim.

In order to fully understand the dangers of technology and how dependent we have become upon it, naturally I turned to technology. I Googled and Googled and Googled. I wanted to learn how to help my children navigate their world in a healthy, moderate way.  I tried to separate the good advice from the bad advice from the completely unrealistic advice. And I found some patterns in my research. 

Here is a guide to the best advice I found:

1. Know the facts: According to one of most comprehensive surveys done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids are spending over seven hours a day in front of a screen for enjoyment, or almost a third of each day. But what is more surprising from this survey is that over two thirds of respondents indicated that they had no rules or limits for the amount of screen time they were allowed. While technology can benefit kids in many ways, unsupervised, unrestricted screen time can expose them to images and behaviors you wouldn't dream of having them exposed to otherwise.

2. Start young: If possible, start guiding your children and setting limits while they're still young and you're still their favorite person. This will give you credibility from early on, and solidify you as the source they can rely on when questions arise. 

3. Teach "Netiquette:" Just as you teach them to say "please" and "thank you," teach them about technology etiquette from a young age. This may include not allowing texting during meals or not typing in all caps, for example. As they mature, talk regularly about building an appropriate online reputation and identity, just as you would hope to build in "real life." Remind them that the same rules for kindness and respect apply online, so if they wouldn't say something in real life, they shouldn't type it either. Finally, talk openly about the permanence of online behavior and about the possible consequences of irresponsible actions.

4. Set limits: No one said parenting was easy, but it's our job to establish values, limits and insist on accountability. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of screen time for kids over two. (Before two, they recommend none. But come on.) They also recommend that you allow no screen time during meals or after bedtime. 

In addition to these time limits, experts recommend keeping computers and other gadgets outside of the bedroom in a central place. A central location makes it easier to monitor what your kids are doing online. Some experts suggest that you insist on being your child’s friend on Facebook and follow them on whatever social networks they're plugged into.

"Psychology Today" recommends establishing from the beginning that you know your child's passwords and can review their online activity regularly. Finally, your kids should see technology as a privilege that can be restricted or revoked if established rules are not followed. In other words, if grades slip, or attitudes get ugly, the X-box may need to live in the attic for awhile.

5. Be the change: Monkey see, monkey do. Just as modeling healthy eating habits is the best way to get our kids eating right, modeling the technology use we want to see is the most effective way to shape our kids' behaviors. It may be easier said than done, but it certainly is important. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Univeresity, has interviewed countless families about this topic.

Sadly, one thing she heard over and over again from kids is how sad and angry they feel when they have to compete with a cell phone or tablet for their parent’s attention. The bottom line is that kids notice when you’re on your phone at every stoplight, at dinner, or during bath time. According to Steiner-Adair, not only can these behaviors strain our relationships with our kids, it can also reinforce the behaviors we don't want to see. 

6. Use your resources: Educate yourself with free parent guides to popular social networks at connectsafely.org. Consider using Net Nanny or a similar program to keep your internet connections free of all the nasty stuff, and be sure all of your security settings are on highest for social networks.

7. Have unplugged fun: Some families have started weekly traditions of having a designated "Unplugged Night" where they spend time together and no technology is allowed. You can enjoy a favorite meal, play some good old-fashioned board games or head to the park. No doubt moments will arrive when you all want to reach for you phone, perhaps just to settle an argument with a quick Google search. But if you make the challenge of being "unplugged" into more of a game, it can be a special bonding time for your family.

8. Take your technology outside: Geocaching is a great way to incorporate technology and GPS devices into an active lifestyle. If you have kids who love using technology, this high-tech treasure hunt may be the perfect way to get them moving and exploring the world while keeping them connected to their favorite device.

What do you think? Are these suggestions easier said than done, or do they not go far enough? We'd love to hear what you think.

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