Digital Parenting 101 - From Screen Time to Social Media

Tips for Dealing with the Internet, Mobile Devices, Social Media and Your Kids

Family taking selfie with 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 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 are 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 has long held with some strict screen time limits that didn't acknowledge the difference between interactive/constructive screen time and passive screen time. Passive screen time is spent staring at a TV program, video or movie, either on the 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 activities is different. Until the AAP comes out with new screen time guidelines, parents should use some common sense in determining which activities kids should use the most. For example, kids may use fitness games and apps on rainy days or when it's too cold to be outside.

 

Tips:

  • 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
  • Help your kids think about the amount of time they are spending with 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!

Resources:

  •  
  • How to Limit Screen Time for Kids
  • How to Choose the Best Apps for Babies and Toddlers

 

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:

  • Take regular breaks from sitting. Set a timer and have kids do some stretches or a quick workout during the breaks.
  • 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.

Resources:

  • Computer Ergonomics for Kids (video)
  • Coping with Video Game-Related Repetitive Stress Injury

 

Internet Access

Once kids have more open access to the Internet, things get even trickier. Now you have to be concerned 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? And then you'll need to talk with them about now posting personally identifiable information online, learning that not everyone you meet is who they say they are, and avoiding bullying, either as the bully or the victim.

Tips:

  • Use an Internet filter or a safe web browser (for younger kids) to help reduce inappropriate content, but don't rely solely on either to protect your kids. 
  • 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 files or clicking on random links.
  • Don't forget that many mobile devices, gaming systems, and even TVs and streaming devices, all provide unfiltered access to the Internet. 

Resources:

 

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 as it becomes more difficult to monitor activities and kids have a lot more 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

Resources:

Tips:

  • 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.

    What is Sexting and Why Is It a Problem?

    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. It's 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 kids younger than that (and many, many older) are not prepared for the long-term safety and social implications of what they do online. While there are the occasional exceptions (parents stationed oversees, or grandparents half-way around the world), most kids don't need and shouldn't really be using social media, even if their friends are doing it. 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 an ongoing dialogue with your kids about social media. Maybe ask the for a tutorial on their favorite site. Not only is that empowering for them, it helps you understand why they enjoy a site and how they use it.
    • 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. 
    • Be thoughtful about what you share online, both in terms of what your kids can see, but also what you're saying about them. 
    • Take cyberbullying and other inappropriate online behaviors seriously. 

    Resources:

    • Parent's Guide to Instagram Safety
    • A Parents' Guide to Snapchat (PDF)
    • Advice from Facebook on Privacy, Safety, and Security
    • 5 Strategies to Keep Teens Safe on Facebook
    • How to Keep Your Teen Safe on Social Media

    How to Survive Digital Parenting

    The most important things to remember are:

    • Talk with your kids about concerns and dangers, but also listen to what they have to say.
    • 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.