Thursday, May 5, 2016

Screenagers and Parenting - How to handle new devices

Last Thursday many parents and students gathered for a screening of Screenagers: Growing up in the digital age. This is a documentary film project created by Delaney Ruston, MD, who filmed scenes of her own children’s struggles with managing technology in their home, along with thoughts from experts and the experiences of a variety of other families. The Screenagers website will give you a good sense of the messages of the film, including many resources for you to use with your family.
When should a child get a smartphone? 
One of the issues that was raised by the film is the age and stage at which we give our children devices that connect them to other people and the world. Dr. Ruston’s soon-to-be 13 year old daughter put a lot of pressure on her parents about getting a smartphone. Her reasoning included, “It will make me cool”, “I’ll have something to look at in awkward situations”, “I’ll be more connected.”  Needless to say, these don’t seem like substantial reasons to put a device with such power in the hands of a young teen.
Every family will handle this decision differently. In my family, our children got phones when they started to take public transportation alone. This was late in Middle School. The phone came with a mutually designed agreement about how and when it would be used. If you take the time to discuss the expected use patterns and responsibilities of owning a powerful digital device before it is purchased, you will have leverage for discussing overuse later. There are samples of contracts on the Screenagers site, and also on my Digital Citizenship site.

Do we have to let technology take over family time?
It is important that the adults and children in a family agree on regular, intentional time with no one is using technology. In our current society adults are as guilty as kids of looking at a phone too frequently and at inappropriate moments (while driving, at meals, during face-to-face conversations for instance). There is new research from CommonSenseMedia about this phenomenon. The continuous presence of some sort of digital device can erode a child’s ability to connect, to develop empathy, and to self-amuse. Putting a small child in front of an iPad or phone at a restaurant to pacify them until the food comes is a lost opportunity - get them engaged with looking at things, walking outside, the bag of toys you brought. Car rides are golden for hearing about how  your child’s day went - unless you or your child is looking at a phone. Make car rides tech free! You will see in the research how important interactions with people, with constructive toys, with the outdoors is in the development of self-motivated, empathic people.

Some simple suggestions:
  • Evaluate how much time you spend checking your technology devices. Become more aware of whether your children are observing you as you do this and find a way to check when they are not around.
  • Be aware of how often you give them a device as a pacifier rather than a constructive, creative tool.
  • Let your children get bored, let them complain, while offering them creative opportunities - it won’t take long before they start building, drawing, reading, playing outside when it’s the only option.
  • Don’t allow technology in the bedroom - no phones, no TVs, no video devices, no iPads. Family tech should be at the family charging station in a central place at night. No arguments.
  • There’s lots of good materials out there to read. Look for more information on the Resources section of this blog, or on the CommonSenseMedia site.

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