Growing Up Digital

The Importance of Parental Awareness and Rules for Kids’ Technology Use

By Megan Murray Elsener

With the advances in technology over the last decade, everyday family life has undergone a massive transformation.  From iPads to computers to smart phones, the focus of many families has shifted from personal interactions to the enticing glow of screens.

Yet according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, the digital world is here to stay and parents need to take control of the technology usage within their family.

“The worst new vision of families is them all sitting around laughing, talking or playing, but not with anybody in the actual room,” says Steiner-Adair.  “Technology has the ability to lure us into the immediate gratification and face pace, yet can stop you from connecting with the people who are right in front of you.”

“Instead families need to help sustain healthy relationships through the actual art of conversation, play as a family together, and make it clear how technology can be responsibly used,” adds Steiner-Adair.

As technology impacts the way we communicate and relate to each other on a daily basis, it’s important for parents to understand the crucial role they play for their children.

According to Scott Steinberg, technology expert and author of the best-selling Modern Parent’s Guide series, the average household owns 11 technology devices.

“Families are obviously surrounded by high tech devices,” says Steinberg. “But technology is just a tool, so it’s neither directly positive or negative in itself. Rather it’s the habits that surround technology use and how we choose to enforce that use that makes technology become positive or negative.”

Steinberg suggests that parents should be involved with their kids from the earliest ages and with every single purchase, from new devices to apps to games.

“Parents should strive to understand the devices, both the ways in which their kids use them and who they use them with,” says Steinberg. “Parents cannot be everywhere at once, so they need to teach their children responsibility with high tech habits, awareness of devices, services and features offered and what they are capable of doing.”

“In the same way you wouldn’t let your kids play in public places unmonitored, the Internet is one of the most public places on the planet and therefore requires the same monitoring and attention when it comes to children,” Steinberg stresses.

Creating rules

Susan O’Mahoney, a mother of three, is constantly working to navigate the roles of technology within her own household.

“My husband and I try to be strict with technology privileges and monitor usage, but it can be hard to differentiate usage with the different ages and needs of our kids,” says O’Mahoney.

Steiner-Adair recommends that every family needs to have a responsible use agreement or contract.

“The technology contract should be well thought out within a family, yet open to changes and adjustments,” says Steiner-Adair. “You want to make clear rules to diffuse any arguments that can wreck family time, so it’s important to have certain times of the day when the entire family is unplugged on a daily basis.”

Steinberg agrees that families need to have a checks and balance system when it comes to technology.

“Kids needs to understand how much screen time is allowed daily and what types of content they are allowed to consume,” says Steinberg.  “It’s important to have rules about spending habits and teaching kids what they can and can’t do.”

“You need to have set times of off-hours where devices are shut off, such as during dinner and before bedtime, and I also think it’s smart to collect phones and devices at night,” adds Steinberg.

Parental usage

O’Mahoney admits that monitoring tech time also applies to herself.

“As a parent, I even have to remind myself to put my phone away and just be present,” says O’Mahoney.

Steiner-Adair says it’s often the parents who don’t follow their own family technology rules and undermine the importance of them for their children.

“Parents need to follow their own technology rules and not make exceptions like having devices at the dinner table or just sending one last email,” says Steiner-Adair. “It’s not fair for children to try to compete for their parent’s attention with screens or devices.”

“When parents are too connected to their devices, kids are left to their own devices and literally plug into their own electronic devices,” adds Steiner-Adair. “It’s risky when technology becomes a de facto parent.”

Steinberg strongly agrees that parents need to be technology role models.

“Kids learn from what they see, so be the change you wish to see in them,” says Steinberg. “Start by putting down your smart phone, limiting your own screen time and having real conversations with your family.”


Getting up to speed

For some parents, just keeping up with the latest technologies can feel daunting, let alone being able to monitor or safeguard every new game or app.

“Google is a great place to start,” encourages Steinberg. “With a little research, you can become conversational very quickly and get up to speed with your children’s technology preferences.”

“For any software or device, you can research and master the basics and get a 70% working knowledge of any device,” says Steinberg. “The other 30% is giving it a hands-on try yourself which is smart for parents to do.”

Another great place to start are the dozens of organizations and parental groups that exist to help parents get up to speed, such as Common Sense Media.

“It’s easy now to keep kids safe on the Internet,” says Steiner-Adair. “It has to be on your agenda all the time and with every new game or device, sit down and talk about when it’s okay to use.”

“Don’t give children access to unfiltered Internet and really think about what games you let your kids play and why,” Steiner-Adair adds.

“Technology becomes a danger when it’s unmonitored or unchecked,” concludes Steinberg. “So parents need to understand the importance of everything in moderation and really instill values and positive behaviors at an early age so children experience positive technology habits that they will carry with them.”

How to unplug every day

Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, recommends the following ways to unplug on a daily basis:
• Get up before your kids and check your email before they are awake.
• No screens or devices first thing in the morning.
• No phones or emails on the way to school.
• No phones or emails picking kids up from school or in car pool line.
• When getting home from school and activities, transition with talk, not tech.
• When parents come home from work, no more emails but rather plug into the family.
• Dinner should always be device free.
• Bath and bedtime should be a time to wind down and be unplugged.
• Charge all devices in a closet overnight and pay attention to which way you roll in the morning, towards the devices or person next to you.