As we travel around the world speaking to parents, the No. 1 question we get is how to control kids’ technology use and limit screen time. We have done surveys of audiences of parents, listing common concerns and asking which ones are their biggest worries. We list everything from sibling rivalry to substance abuse, and from sexual experimentation to bullying, and the top two vote getters every time — the two biggest worries of parents — are entitled attitudes and addiction to and excessive use of technology.
Now, these two biggest concerns are very closely related. Kids with entitled attitudes are essentially saying, “I deserve to have everything my friends have and everything I want, and I shouldn’t have to wait for it or work for it.” And one of the main things they feel entitled to is technology — smartphones, tablets, video games and more screen time and more social media.
And parents are worried. They are worried not only about too much time online but also about how texting and social media is replacing real conversation and personal interaction, and how screen time is keeping them from being outside, from getting exercise and from healthy and personal social interaction with peers and with their own siblings and parents. And of course, they are also worried about the bullying, profanity, pornography and crudeness that their kids are exposed to online; not to mention the celebrity culture, the materialistic culture and all the other negative cultures that populate the internet.
So, what is a parent to do?
Well, first of all every family, every situation and every child is different, so we should be wary of one-size-fits-all solutions. But here are some principles that we think apply to every family.
1. Have an enforceable limit on screen time. Talk it over with your kids, starting with what the dangers are and what it can keep them from. Welcome their input but tell them that you will be setting limits.
2. Don’t let kids have their laptops or their smartphones in their rooms. Use them in the family room or kitchen or other public parts of the home and leave them there when kids go to bed or go to their rooms.
3. Don’t let kids younger than 14 have a smartphone. If you want to be able to reach your kids and for them to be able to contact you, get them a “dumb” phone that can call or text but nothing else.
4. Have a Wi-Fi router that you can turn off when you don’t want anyone online (like at dinner time or after bedtime).
5. In a family meeting, discuss what social media is allowed in your family and why. Discuss what is inappropriate and unacceptable online and in social media and make a list of what is and is not allowed online by family members.
6. In another family meeting, talk together about the pros and cons of technology and of social media. Get kids involved in a discussion of how their brains work and how social media affects them. Talk together about addictions and how you know if you are addicted to screen time.
7. Set the example. If you put your phone away in the evenings and limit your time online, kids will notice, and both the discussion and the discipline will come more naturally to them.
8. Consider setting up a “technology contract” that lays out what gadgets kids can have and when, who will pay for them and for the supporting Wi-Fi, when they have access to their smartphones and other technology and when they don’t, how you will monitor their social media and website use, etc. For an example of such a contract and for additional thoughts and research on kids and technology, go to our daughter Shawni’s blog at 71toes.com and see these two posts: "Friday Q&A — a technology contract" and "Why I think technology is ruining our kids."
In a future column, we will discuss additional kids-and-technology recommendations and the research and data that they are based on.