Digital Parenting 101 — Screen Time to Social Media

Close up preschool girl with stylus drawing on digital tablet
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Parenting today has a lot more complexity than it did for previous generations. The addition of the Internet, cell phones, and other forms of technology not only add more to think about but also a faster pace of change. New social media sites crop up daily, apps are appearing like weeds, and access is ever-present. It's overwhelming to stay on top of it and nearly impossible to monitor everything.

Still, while it seems easiest to throw your hands up in the air, the best thing to do is to learn as much as you can and arm yourself with knowledge. You may not be able to watch everything, but sometimes the key is just to show that you're paying attention at all. The list of concerns for digital parenting is long, but here are some of the basics with information, tips, and resources for all of them.

Screen Time

When kids are little, it's easy to manage their technology use since you're already keeping a watchful eye on them for other safety reasons. The biggest concern for little ones is the amount and quality of screen time they have access to.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages fairly limited screen time (less than 2 hours of sedentary screen time a day for children ages 2-18). However, the AAP acknowledges that the kind of screen time kids have (passive, interactive, or constructive) is important.

Passive screen time is spent staring at a TV program, video, or movie, either on the big screen or on a device. Interactive screen time is spent playing video games, moving along with a game or on-screen fitness activities, or exploring apps. Constructive screen time is spent designing websites, writing digital music, coding, etc. Obviously, each of these activity types has a different effect on children.

Parents should use some common sense in determining which activities kids should do the most. For example, kids may use fitness games and apps on rainy days or when it's too cold to be outside. 

Tips

Try the following tips:

  • Help your kids think about the amount of time they are spending on screens and encourage them to take breaks and try other things. One of the best tools you can give them is the ability to self-moderate their time.
  • Model appropriate screen time limits. Your kids are watching and learning from you!
  • Talk to your kids about what they are doing and watching online and help them find some balance between social activities, strategy games/puzzles, fitness activities, productive pursuits, and a little passive time just for relaxing

Ergonomics

This is something that people don't often think about. Ergonomics is actually a really important concern as kids spend more and more time using devices, playing video games, and watching screens.

Ergonomics is the science behind the design of a work environment. It tells you how high your screen/monitor should be to remove stress on your neck or how to position your arms to avoid repetitive stress injuries when using a mouse for long periods of time. But the bottom line is to create a comfortable space for everyone in your family.

Tips

Try these suggestions:

  • Encourage kids to use good posture when sitting at the computer. It can save a lot of pain down the road.
  • Set up your family computer station with furniture that is adjustable for different family members. An office chair with a footstool can easily move between an adult and a child, for example.
  • Take regular breaks from sitting. Set a timer and have kids do some stretches or a quick workout during the breaks.

Internet Access

Once kids have more open access to the Internet, things get even trickier. Now you have to be concerned not only about what they are seeing and reading but also how they are interacting with others. How do you keep them from reading inappropriate material while giving them the freedom to explore topics for school?

You'll need to talk with them about not posting personally identifiable information online, learning that not everyone they meet online is who they say they are, and avoiding bullying—either as the bully or the victim.

Tips

These tips can help:

  • Don't forget that many mobile devices, gaming systems, and even TVs all provide unfiltered access to the Internet. 
  • Draft a contract together about what's acceptable and what's not. Make sure it includes some basics around any monitoring you'll be doing to set up mutual trust.
  • Teach kids safe browsing habits, including not downloading unknown files or clicking on random links.
  • Use an Internet filter or a safe web browser (for younger kids) to help reduce exposure to inappropriate content, but don't rely solely on either to protect your kids. 

Mobile Devices

Once kids start enjoying a bit more independence—walking home from school, drop-offs at friends' houses, alone time at extra-curricular activities—it's a good time to start thinking about getting them a cell phone. Many kids already have tablets by this point as well.

Mobile devices bring a new set of challenges, including difficulty in monitoring activities and unobstructed access to the Internet and social media.

It's even more important to stay on top of these things, however, as kids are now able to communicate, browse, and share even when you're not around. This feeling of additional freedom can bring additional risky and inappropriate behaviors. It's a great time to revisit your Internet policy and add any mobile devices you have

Tips

Try these suggestions:

  • Collect all devices and turn them off before bed. Store and charge them together in a central location or, if necessary, in the parents' bedroom. 
  • Help kids understand the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying. Teach them to report inappropriate behavior to you or another adult. 
  • Start kids out with simple phones with no data plan. Once they've shown responsibility for those devices, consider graduating them to a more expensive phone.

Social Media

The very first thing you should know is that there is a law (COPPA) that states that companies cannot collect personal information from kids under the age of 13 without verifiable approval from a parent/guardian. This is why kids are not allowed to join social media sites.

It is not, however, a safety precaution. It's all about privacy. The law is meant to keep companies from collecting information about and marketing to children without parental consent. It does have the unintended side effect of "discouraging" kids from signing up for social media until they are 13. Generally speaking, this is positive.

Most younger kids are not prepared for the long-term safety and social implications of what they do online. While there are the occasional exceptions (parents stationed overseas or grandparents half-way around the world), most kids don't need to use social media, even if their friends are.

Breaking the rules by ignoring the age limits and/or lying about their age is setting a precedent that you may very well regret later. That said, if you do move forward, or if your kids are already old enough, take the time to get to know all of the social media sites they belong to, maintain your child's login information for all of them, talk to your kids about safety precautions (see below), and do your best to stay on top of it all.

Lastly, your kids will hide things from you (posts, behavior, and accounts). It doesn't matter how good and sweet they are. It's a normal part of growing up, just like whispering secrets with friends. Accepting this early on will save you a lot of problems later and allow you to be more proactive.

Tips

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Be thoughtful about what you share online, both in terms of what your kids can see and what you're saying about them. 
  • Don't deliberately try to embarrass or humiliate your kids—it sends a poor message about appropriate behavior, and it's not something you can take back later. 
  • Keep an ongoing dialogue with your kids about social media. Maybe ask them for a tutorial on their favorite site. Not only is that empowering for them, but it also helps you understand why they enjoy a site and how they use it.
  • Take cyberbullying and other inappropriate online behaviors seriously. 

How to Survive Digital Parenting

The most important things to remember are:

  • Be involved. Know what they are doing online and how all of the social media sites work.
  • Set rules and boundaries just like everything else. Kids will cross them, but they still need to know where the lines are.
  • Talk with your kids about concerns and dangers, but also listen to what they have to say.
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7 Sources
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