This blog entry was first posted at Good Digital Parenting, a project of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) designed to help parents, teachers and teens to connect, share and do good online.
In nearly every PEP parenting class, one of the first issues parents raise is setting limits on electronic use. Whether computers, tablets, video games, cell phones or TVs, parents are continually seeking ways to “tame the electronic beast.”
Before I jump in to help parents “solve” this problem, I first ask what the problem actually is. Mainly, I ask if parents are concerned by what their children ARE doing online−what they are being exposed to, what mindless activity they’re engaging in, who they are connecting with (strangers, cyberbullies), etc.−or are they more worried about what their children ARE NOT doing because they are spending all of their time tied to electronics, i.e., are they missing out on exercise or social interaction or not completing homework or household chores? Determining what behavior/activity we’re looking to limit or which ones we are looking to encourage is our first step in identifying the problem.
As parents we do have the power to set enforceable, respectful limits over our children’s use of technology. Being clear on what we are limiting them from, however, is very important. I often liken online technology use to driving a car. We don’t just hand the keys over when our kids turn 16. They go through a period of driver education, followed by a learner’s permit, a large number (we hope) of supervised on-road hours under the watchful eyes of adults, on-road and off-road testing and, finally, a provisional license with limits. All of this practice and testing is to help keep our kids safe along with all others who share the road with them. Automobiles are large machines that can very easily take a life or at the very least do irreparable damage to a person’s life when used improperly.
Unfortunately, the inappropriate, untrained use of computers can have that same power. So, as parents, we shouldn’t just “hand them the keys” to drive the Internet wherever and whenever they want to. Our electronics training includes user education, supervised use and “provisional” licenses that limit when and how they can be online.
Once our kids are licensed, we don’t always ride along in the car with them, but we do have control over when they can have access to the car. The same can be the case with electronics. When setting limits, parents often find it easier to take the keys rather than police the child. Some examples of this are:
- Instituting “bedtimes” and “dinner breaks” when all household electronics are unavailable (yes, even Mom’s and Dad’s) to allow for family time and other non-electronic activity;
- Establishing “electronic free zones” such as the dinner table, bedroom or car rides less than 20 minutes, where cell phones, tablets and other portable electronics are off-limits, “forcing” family members to engage with one another or in some other activity;
- Utilizing any parental controls offered by the technology such as limits on websites or channels that can be accessed, a router timer, etc.
As parents, we also can’t underestimate the importance of modeling the appropriate use of technology when we are around our kids. If they see us on the couch “tele-visi-phoner-netting” on a regular basis, our pleas for them to “get off the computer/video game/cell phone” will likely fall on deaf ears. Modeling is vitally important when it comes to the safe use (or NON-use) of cell phones when driving a car. Our actions truly speak louder than our words and can be key to keeping our kids safe and healthy.
And, speaking of our words, how we talk with our kids about their electronic/online use can also make a huge difference. Speaking respectfully and honestly while focusing on the problem we feel is created by electronic use is important. Ask questions to find out what purpose electronic/online use serves for your child−social interaction, feelings of mastery/accomplishment, curing boredom−so that alternatives can be in place before just pulling the plug.
As tempting as it is to raise our kids in an electronic-free zone, being technologically savvy and able to self-limit are vital life skills that our kids need to learn under our watchful eye.
Robbye Fox has been a certified parent educator since 2005 working primarily with parents of teens. Robbye is also an Educational Consultant with The College Lady and the mother of three young adults.