Managing tech is a lifelong challenge for all of us! It’s DESIGNED to hook us in and keep us there. So modelling, building and reinforcing simple habits that will have a chance of sticking, is part of future-proofing your child. And it’s good for the whole family!
Online parenting can feel overwhelming to most parents. But it’s an unavoidable part of modern parenting. In the last couple of years, and especially coming out of our COVID isolation, there was a focus on HOW MUCH screen time was OK. We were trying to separate educational screen time from entertaining and trying to apply the World Health Organization’s Guidelines – which are still a useful barometer.
At Be in Touch we like to use the Wheel of Life principle as a good way to approach screen time practically. We’ve all only got 24 hours a day, represented by the spokes of the wheel if you will. Once you’ve allocated segments for all the essentials like sleeping, eating, exercise, school, homework, sport, hobbies, chores, family time – that’s what’s left for fun screentime.
But more than HOW MUCH – we’ve shifted to a greater focus on the WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WITH WHO?
WHAT is the content of that fun screentime? Does it add to or take away from what you are trying to teach your child in terms of your family’s values and beliefs?
WHEN are they on their screens? Is it affecting one of their other essential wheel of life segments like sleep, nutrition, exercise or family time – all incredibly important to support teen mental health.
WHERE are they on the screens? Is it in an area of the house that will enable more secrecy about WHAT they are accessing?
WITH WHOM are they interacting online? Do they know their online friends IRL? Do you?
These are all questions that family’s need to grapple with and chat about when agreeing on Family Tech Rules. These are the boundaries that all family members will need to keep each other to. So it becomes the blueprint for your family’s tech habits.
Some of these habits can be reinforced in a contract or pledge with each child, setting out more specific rules and boundaries around how they use their devices including:
- Fun screen time limits
- Sharing of information online
- Usage of social media apps and games
- Online behaviours
- Responsibilities and consequences.
Applying the “loan not own” principle when giving your kids access to devices, really helps with setting boundaries around their use, clarifying consequences for misuse and most importantly implementing those consequences!
In my family, with my teen son and tween daughter, these are our top three digital habits:
Phones out of bedrooms at night
We could add out of bathrooms too, but we haven’t quite got that one right yet! Of all the habits to start early and be consistently non-negotiable on, this is the one.
In the work we do with tweens and teens, they all tell us that the prime time for cyberbullying, stranger contact and pornography is late at night. It’s a perfect storm of unsupervised tired brains making bad choices.
From a most basic view point, sleep is one of the key elements for developing brains and bodies. If your child’s device is in its room at night, I can guarantee you that they are being developmentally compromised. They go to sleep later than they should. They wake up in the night – either because of notifications, or they get up to go to the loo and check their phones. They wake up earlier than they should. They are just not getting enough sleep. And so this tired brain making bad choices scenario is compounded.
Avoid the need for phones, tablets, computers or gaming consoles to be left in bedrooms at night. Get them an alarm clock, get them a flashlight. Just get devices out of bedrooms at night. Pick a charging area that is not easy for them to access. Get a charging station. Make docking your family’s devices outside of bedrooms, at a certain time every night, a HABIT.
Device free meals
We try to use meals as an opportunity to sit down and talk, connect and catch up with each other – without our devices. It’s one of the best times to find out what’s going on IRL (in real life) and IOL (in online life).
Have discussions early and often with kids about the good, bad and ugly of the online world. Talk about cyberbullying, the many forms it can take and the pros and cons of being an upstander. Debate whether nudes ever really die? Chat about the impact and consequences of online pornography on the brain, body and relationships. Role play how to deal with unwanted and maybe inappropriate contact from online strangers. Ask them about the funniest / weirdest thing they saw that day, whether IRL or IOL. Tell them what you saw.
You can extend this habit to include device-free family outings, or try a whole unplugged day (the odd Sunday or a day on holiday perhaps). You might have to be the enforcer to get it going, but check in as a family what that time felt like, and whether not having devices in the mix made it better or worse?
Check in and check up
It sounds simple, but TALK to your kids. In the car, at meals, while they’re helping you do stuff. Sometimes you’ll get insights, sometimes you won’t, but they’ll know you are always there to listen if you keep prompting and asking.
Check phones, tablets, gaming consoles, TV’s, computers. Whether you do it by literally picking them up and going through them, or have a parental control that gives you alerts on the stuff you need to know, you absolutely HAVE to check. There is no privacy online. Everything that our kids say, receive, send, download, or upload, is stored, screenshot, sent on, commented on, saved… it’s out there!
We need to remember that teen brain development is still work in progress. The prefrontal cortex (responsible for skills like planning, prioritising, and making good decisions) is the last part of the brain to mature, at around 25. Our challenge as parents is that, in teen years, the brain has not yet developed to a degree that will help teens fully control their impulses and desires, especially when it comes to the compulsive nature of devices and online risk-taking.
This is why it is so essential we don’t lose them in their teen years to the online world. They really need us to help guide them, make the right choices, or respond, rectify and learn from when they don’t.
We can help protect our kids to a point with parental controls, filters and limits, which are an absolutely essential part of modern online parenting. This means –
- Making sure that all devices have content filtering, and
- Adjusting safety and privacy settings for each device, app and game.
But you will still need to keep checking in and checking up. All the time. And be ready for when you find something you need to help them deal with, or if you are lucky, when they come to you for help. This is your test, your defining moment, the predictor as to whether they will likely turn to you again for help. Whatever the issue, you will need to stay calm, breathe, and reassure your kid that you are in their corner, that you will figure out a plan and a way forward together, that you’ll help them get through this.
And then you’ll need to prove yourself by doing just that!