Setting Expectations and Limits for Appropriate Technology Use with Dr. Michael Slone

This blog is brought to you by Dr. Michael Slone of the Center for Developing Minds (www.devminds.com). 

Parenting has become more complicated.  Age-old parenting concerns remain, such as “Where is my child?”, “What is my child doing?” and “Who is my child with?”; however, now in the digital age parents are asking these questions while their child or teen is sitting at home, online.  

Johnny plays video games with online strangers instead of outside with friends. Sally chats via words on a screen instead of face-to-face communication. Marco watches videos online instead of doing his studies or homework. Anjali is feeling depressed after seeing her classmates’ social media posts.  Neil writes insulting and threatening messages online. Sonya spends all her free time and money cyber shopping. Miguel is learning about the human body, relationships, and sex via pornography websites.    

For the first time ever, teenagers’ surveyed in 2018 reported that they value texting more than face-to-face communication. Moreover, children ages 8-18 devote more than 50 hours a week, more than a full-time job, to entertaining themselves with non-school related media.  Their computers, tablets, video games, televisions and cell phones are connected to anything the Internet can imagine.  In their own homes, or on the go, our children can explore and experiment online with any subject or person in the world. Are you concerned about your child’s welfare in today’s digital age? You’re not alone. 

As an Educational Psychologist and Pediatric Behavior Analyst, and former School Administrator and Counselor, the most common parent concern and parent-child conflict I see in my work relate to technology use in the home.  Parents, along with many researchers, educators, and pediatric experts, are concerned about unhealthy amounts of screen time interfering with critical childhood and adolescent experiences, such as physical exercise, social interactions, academic studies, family activities and sufficient sleep.  In addition, middle and high school administrators and resource officers now have to spend as much time disciplining and policing online behaviors as they do on-campus actions. 

Our children and teens’ developing brains need now more than ever for parents to be vigilant of what they are doing online, and to steer them towards healthy balance and behaviors.  This three-part blog is designed to give parents quick tips and resources for this epic challenge, Parenting In Today’s Digital Age.  First, parents must Set Expectations and Limits for Appropriate Technology Use.  Second, we need to Teach Safe and Smart Cyber and Cell Phone Activity.  Last but not least, parents are encouraged to Attentively Participate in Their Children’s Lives, Including Their Digital Lives. 

Setting expectations and limits for appropriate technology use is critical to parenting in today’s digital age.  Research on parenting styles for more than a half century (see Baumrind, etc.) have identified some common patterns—parents are either high or low on demandingness (e.g., rules, expectations, consequences) and responsiveness (e.g., attention, sensitivity) to their children, which can have long-term effects on their children’s outcomes.  A demanding but unresponsive parenting style, classified as Authoritarian, can result in later problems for the child and parent-child relationship.  Similarly, low demands but high responsiveness, a Permissive style, results in other developmental difficulties and negative outcomes.  Perhaps the most vulnerable child is the one whose parents are neither demanding nor responsive—the Neglectful parenting style.  Parents these days must find the right balance between responsiveness and demandingness, love and logic, often referred to as an Authoritative parenting style.

Before you authoritatively discuss and set expectations and limits with your child and teen, consider the following questions:

  • When does our family want to allow screen time?
  • Where should the screen time occur?
  • What do I want my child to be accessing on screens?

Based on their research and experts, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children under the age of three avoid media use.  AAP advises parents to allow preschoolers no more than one hour per day of high-quality programming.  For grade-schoolers and teens, AAP recommends that parents do not allow media to displace essential activities, such as one hour of exercise daily, family meals, schoolwork, a full (9-10 hour) night-sleep and “unplugged” downtime.  Parents are encouraged to not allow screens in bedrooms, and to monitor, co-view and enjoy healthy media with their kids to help them learn from what they are doing, seeing and saying online—be your child’s media mentor!  Most importantly, AAP advises that parents help children and teens balance their media use with other healthy activities by creating a “Family Media Use Plan.” 

A Family Media Use Plan helps parents set and enforce expectations and limits for technology use so that children and teenagers clearly know their family’s values and rules, and the logic behind those values and rules.  Sponsored by the AAP, the website healthychildren.org can walk your family step-by-step through developing a media use plan.  Another extremely useful resource is Common Sense Media, which has detailed templates for family media agreements and customizable device contracts that help you decide with your child or teen where, when and how long they will access media.  These resources also educate children and teens on the importance of being responsible with technology, including how to properly care for and maintain devices, utilize privacy settings and communicate safely online.  It is important to remind our children and teens that your job as their parent is to monitor and guide their media use, just as you must responsibly monitor and guide any other aspect of their health, development, and safety.

In your ongoing challenge to set and monitor limits in the digital age, and enforce your family media agreement, I encourage you to use current technology to do some of the work for you.  For example, in addition to the agreements and contracts mentioned above, Common Sense Media has countless articles and reviews related to media content—unsure what websites, video games, apps, social media, shows, and movies are appropriate for your child’s age?  Look them up at commonsensemedia.org before granting access, and make an informed decision with your child and teen.     

Furthermore, use the parental controls on your family’s home network and devices to restrict and monitor your child’s Internet access and time online.   If your technology skills are insufficient to do this, or your child finds ways around your parental controls, consult other adults you know who are savvier, or hire a technology professional for some advice and a tutorial.

The Circle by Disney is one of the easiest and most effective ways to set parental controls and monitoring, including:  

  • Circle Home  for a one-time fee of $54.99 allows you to easily set-up and manage (set parental controls, monitor usage) every device on your home internet network from a user-friendly app on your phone
  • Circle Go  is a $9.95/month service and app that allows you to manage/monitor up to 10 mobile devices on any internet/cell network your child/teenager may access in the world

For parents who do not want their child to have a smartphone yet but are looking for the benefits of being able to call, text and GPS-track their child anywhere, ask your phone service provider for phones and plans with restricted features.  Furthermore, consider a “screen-free” starter phone, such as the Relay by Republic Wireless, which allows you to call or GPS track your child by one-touch, but has no distracting screen or features.  

One effective way to help children and teenagers limit their media use and enjoy balanced lives is participation in structured activities that have proven benefits to child development, such as sports, music, arts, theatre, scouts, nature hikes, religious activities and household chores.  Libraries and homework/tutoring centers can also offer productive after-school destinations. You can also encourage device-free play dates, social time and family meals!     

Hopefully, this blog has inspired and empowered you to Set Expectations and Limits for Appropriate Technology Use.  In the next two parts of this three-part Parenting in Today’s Digital Age blog, I’ll provide tips and resources for Teaching Safe and Smart Cyber and Cell Phone Activity, as well as how to Attentively Participate in Your Children’s Lives, Including Their Digital Lives.