Author: Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT)
After watching kids and technology metamorphose for the past 30 years, I’ve come to some big picture thoughts for any parent who’s made technology an integral part of their family life.
First: There are no rules
You are writing the rules for a guidebook that’s never been written. How much screen time is too much? How much should kids use and share on social media? How do you teach children to ferret truth from fiction?
Growing up hasn’t changed (though it’s perhaps increased in velocity). Kids still go through the same stages of development, but a tool like the Internet is like a magnifying glass for both the best and worst behaviors. The only guidebook you have is your own knowledge of the digital world, and since it’s always changing you’ll always be adapting your rules. Just don’t be afraid to make some rules: think about specifics. Do you want to hold all passwords until a certain age? Disallow devices at the table? Screens off at 10 PM on a school night? If you feel the need to modify the rules later on, at least they exist.
Second: As the virtual world grows, the physical world shrinks.
While kids are exposed to the entire world on the web, the size of their physical world, the one where they’re free to roam, is actually shrinking. Studies have been done that show how kids play has changed and how far they are free to roam and explore has shrunk. The circle of freedom has moved from physical to virtual. Parents should look for a bit more balance between the two. If you’re the nervous type, you might consider using a child locator to keep in touch, but as the song goes…. let ‘em go.
Third: Parents behaving badly
You are your kid’s digital role models. Don’t lose sight of that. There’s no more pathetic sight than a tearful toddler pleading for mom or dad to put down the phone long enough to pay attention to what they’re asking. There’s something really sad about watching an oversharing parent who posts a picture each time their kid makes a move, knowing that they’re going to be the ones teaching their own brood not overshare. And public shaming by parents of their kids by forcing them to be punished on the Internet — it’s a cruel and disturbing trend.
Just like in the physical world, kids learn by imitation. Think about that long and hard before you post something you’ll regret later, when they’re in therapy to deal with oversharing parent’s syndrome.
We still don’t know the answers to hard and fast questions such as “how much screen time is ok” and we probably never will. Ultimately it’s about the quality and balance of life on, off and hybrid — screen. If you allow too much game time you might be parenting next Mr. Iwata, the revered developer from Nintendo, or you might be rearing the next sociopath. You might allow a device at the dinner table if it’s helping add information to the conversation about art or weekend plans, or you might decide that meals are better off with just food and conversation.
The most important parts are the conversations that surround screen time. It’s the tool, not the focus. Not all consumption of stuff on the web is equally useful. Cute YouTube videos have their place, but when you use the web as a family to decide on vacations, choose a car, or pick a college, you’re cultivating search skills and showing how to evaluate information. I used to have a rule in our house that the kids should start their papers away from the internet. Outline on paper. That way they’re driving the bus.
Similarly, I’m a big believer in giving kids digital tools that let them achieve some mastery in the digital world. That might be a drawing program, or a music exploration app. It might be building a robot. Every kid should learn basic programming – at minimum putting up a web page – even if they think they want to be a philosopher or ballerina. It’s the minimum acceptable requirement for being a student in this century.
The bottom line? In the long run, being a good parent means you ultimately put yourself out of a job. We don’t ever stop being parents but the name of the game is to create a self-sufficient child capable of making good decisions in both the physical and virtual worlds.
Have confidence. Enjoy the job while it lasts!