Updated: Apr 23
Question: My teen is online almost all day. Advice?
Repeat after me: limits are loving.
It is hard to imagine as a middle-aged woman how my life may have been different if I had grown up in the smartphone era. My first email message was sent during my first semester in college in the Fall of 1996. At the time, I thought I was a big deal for my technological advancements. Hilarious!
Fast forward to the 2020-21 school year- I have been spending a minimum of 5 hours a day, usually close to double that, online with my middle school students. What was once a recreational activity for my students is now a matter of course for their remote school situation. Some of the families chose this for their child for valid reasons, and others have been unwilling participants.
The purpose of this post is not to argue the pros or cons of online schooling or of kids and screen time in general. Most of society would agree that there are significant drawbacks which have been somewhat of a necessary problem. Technology is not going away for the majority of our culture and our children now and moving forward.
Instead, I will outline below my best suggestions on managing your child’s use of technology in a reasonable and healthy way. My insights include 20+ years of classroom discipline and management background within the frameworks of both child development and realistic options.
Point 1: Protect what you love.
I don’t know any caring parent that would allow their baby girl or boy to walk out into the middle of the street, much less a crowded one. My niece is less than two years old. Recently, her family took a vacation in which the child-safety gates of their little home were not in place. While she was in a safe, open area, her little feet patted rapidly in all directions. Her sweet parents needed a vacation from the vacation after chasing her down for days.
Don’t chase your child down in the online realm. You will not keep up.
The web is too vast and our world too high paced to be able to continually monitor their safety by yourself. You need virtual child-safe gates in the form of parental controls, filtering software, and usage timers to keep your child within the bounds of general audience content. These are not optional.
We are not just talking about predators here, though that is an obvious place to begin paying attention. If you let your child go out of the house, would you consider only the creepy white van a potential kidnapper? No. You’d also account for traffic whizzing by, other children, and the neighborhood dog who might knock him off his bicycle. You would teach your child to be kindly assertive, look both ways before crossing the street, and to make common sense choices to keep themselves safe.
Except kids don’t have common sense.
You will need to impose some of that upon them until they have the maturity and foresight to look out for themselves.
Case in point: there are many bad actors—domestic and foreign online. One example that comes to mind is the seemingly benign APP, Tik Tok. For reasons too long to go into here, this type of interface, in my view, seeks to influence your child’s thinking and beliefs based on the content stream it reels. Though on its face the videos appear mild and silly (which is part of their appeal to children), the agencies behind it have marketing motives that are not necessarily in their best interest. Understand the software your child is using, and make sure you are comfortable with the company’s values and the agendas behind them.
Safety measures on the internet are not a fringe luxury. If you are going to have internet in your home, they are 200% needed. If you can’t afford safeguards, you can’t afford the internet service itself. It is like driving a car without insurance, which is reckless and foolish.
You would not open the door and let your toddler loose barefoot outside. Don’t do that with your school-aged child or teen on the world wide web either.
Point 2: Web use is a privilege, not a right.
Our culture has come to the point that internet access is on the same level as running water and electricity. People think they cannot live without it. Students especially feel this way, because they never actually have lived before the internet.
It is important to impress upon our children that the internet is not a matter of life and death. Billions of people in history have never known it. Sure, it is nice to get to a hotel with lightning fast webspeed. Having been a world-wide traveler, I know the joy of a strong connection is a wonderful blessing. Yet rural areas and less developed nations have not had good service, and they are still alive today to tell about it.
Children need to be told this. Crazy, I know. Another blog for another time…
Point 3: Privileges are earned.
Once we emphasize that the internet is a perk and not a given, we can move into the most important phrase of this training- they will earn their usage time.
Now, you can choose to be a benevolent parent and "gift" them some time online-let’s say two hours per day for the typical teenager as a rough example.
If they want more than two hours (or whatever amount you set), they will work for the opportunity. That’s how the real world functions.
There are many ways to do this: you can be creative as a parent. For example:
-supervising a younger sibling
-running an errand for the family
-serving the community
-learning beyond the requirements of school, my personal favorite!
I remember reading about one ingenious Dad who only gave his children money in exchange for book reports. More specifically, these book reports were in the genre of personal growth or self-improvement. His teenage son had read so many books on small business ownership that he became a successful entrepreneur before he graduated high school.
If the internet is the new spending allowance, then you can task your son or daughter with whatever currency your family needs. This is a great way to not only prevent screen addiction. What’s more, it is a channel to imparting your values as the adult steward in this child’s life.
Point 4: Harness the economy of time.
Help your child see that time is money is internet usage.
Use a timer.
There should be a healthy ratio between online time, offline conversations and activities, and physical movement. In my child development courses in teacher college, even television was strongly discouraged for children younger than two years of age. Today, you can see preschool children operating or watching Mom’s smartphone-an electronic babysitter. This is havoc for their brain development, much less their social learning. They need to be looking at your face, parent—not the face of a two-dimensional cartoon character. This is how humans bond and learn relationship skills.
Try this: for every 30 minutes your child sits sedentary caressing their smar phone, require so many minutes of:
-engaging with family or friends,
-chores and homework,
- playing outside, exercising, etc.
Large motor skill development requires that children move. Sitting around all day is perhaps one of the most detrimental side effects of the cyberage.
What you want your child to realize through this practice is that time is finite. When they have to spend 50% of their time doing something—almost anything else—besides using their tech gadgets, eventually they will run out of daylight. By drawing their attention away from the computer and phone, you will help break an addictive pattern before it can clutch your child’s body and brain.
Point 5: Model life balance.
You cannot teach your child to do anything long-term that you don’t also do yourself. As a parent or guardian, you must demonstrate self-discipline and a healthy, well-rounded life if you want your child to do so.
How many hours a day do we spend looking into the face of each of our loved ones? Playing with pets? Reading a book? Helping someone in need? Keep track of it today.
Compare that to how many hours we spend with our noses in our electronic devices. You can see quickly that we can be really out of balance also.
So, set a timer for yourself.
Spend at least as much of your discretionary time with your children and your self-care as you waste scrolling social media.
It won’t be today, but someday your child will thank you for your example and caring boundaries.
The internet is not inherently bad or good-it is a tool. Like any tool, safe usage requires intentionality. Have an honest dialogue with your kids, especially the older they are, about the benefits and problems of being online. They probably know more than you realize. There will also be gaps in their understanding that you need to shore up.
Ask them to help you make a list of the positives and negatives of the web, so that they understand the reasons behind your online limits. When your child feels included in the conversation, they are much more likely to cooperate and appreciate your kind concerns.