by Melanie Soloway, J.D., C.P.E.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the importance of setting limits.  I also discussed how sticking to them is the stickiest part.  As a mother of three teens, I can assure you that I have experienced plenty of challenges around implementing limits on content and time when it comes to technology.

The Problems

One of the most common challenges I hear parents grapple with is how to “re-set” limits that are already established.  “He has been plugging his phone in his room to charge overnight since he was twelve.  How do I change the rule now that he is fifteen?”  And… “All this social media is creating low self-esteem and anxiety for my daughter.  All her friends are on it and if she isn’t, she will feel left out and unhappy.”

Our kids navigate the digital world we now all live in as the digital natives they are.  Like many parents, I remain a digital foreigner no matter how many courses I take or lessons I learn.  A mom at a lecture I attended the other day chastised any parent who does not have parental controls on their child’s device(s). Oh gosh, I thought.  Do I have enough, have I done enough?   When I told my thirteen-year-old son I need to revisit this aspect on his devices he laughed out loud.  “It’s not funny!” I said. “Yes, it is,” he replied.

My son assured me that there are no parental controls that he, or his friends, cannot figure how to get around.  Other kids, who are not as technologically savvy, will just go to a friend’s house and watch whatever they want (or don’t even want to) there.

It’s a bit terrifying.  When my kids were little, I would never leave them at a park alone, afraid of predators, or allow them to just prance around the mall without adult supervision.  I made sure that any movie we saw was rated PG and would not even put their names on their lunchbox’s or backpacks to ensure they could not be identified by strangers.  Now our children of all ages have access to devices, with tiny screens where predators can find them, where marketers can influence their minds, and where they are exposed to all sorts of things long before they are mentally or emotionally equipped to deal with them. How can we protect them? 

The Solutions

The truth is, it is not all bad!  It does not have to be so scary.  Technology does have many positive aspects.  I believe that the majority of society, including me, would agree that technology has improved our lives in some respects… for instance, it is technology that is assisting me in getting this article to you to read.

The ingredients to having a healthy relationship with technology, for ourselves and our children, includes education; communication; limitation; and modeling.

Setting limits and sticking to them is the same for everything, including technology.  In the 21st century, which is a whole new world, it is imperative that we educate ourselves, communicate respectfully, set limits and stick to them as well as model our own use of technology appropriately.

EDUCATING ourselves, as parents, about the positive and negative information about sites our children want to visit or games they want to play, etc., is critical.   Do your homework! When they are old enough, however, rather than merely lecturing them about what you learn, ask them to do the research too. Have them teach you about it.  Talk to your children. Ask them what is positive about a site or a game and what they might learn from it.  We don’t just want to be the law makers and police…eventually, as they grow older, they will be making the choices alone for what to watch and do.  Help them learn how to make good choices.  Playing the games with them has the added benefit of building bonding relationships.

COMMUNICATE as early as possible.  It is far easier to begin teaching our children both the positives and negatives about “screens” when they are younger because, as they grow up, understanding what is harmful and helpful in their lives will help them make more positive choices for themselves “naturally”. However, even when they are older it is not too late to change and implement new rules.  Respectful communication with a child/teen about new information we obtain, and why we are changing the rules is the key. It does not mean that implementing new limits will be easy.  However, just as we would do everything in our “power” to protect our underage children from taking drugs or drinking alcohol, which is harmful to their growing brains, setting limits on technology which can also be unhealthy for them is necessary to protect them.

SET LIMITS and stick to them!  To determine how much is too much requires us to do our homework.  Just as we do, for example, with unnatural sugar.  More fruit is preferable over candy, but many parents agree that even limits should be set on that. Good rules might include setting “screen free time” around meals and/or during certain hours a week or day.  Playing family board games, establishing times to enjoy outdoor activities like sports, hiking, etc. is also very important to give our children time to not only bond and build human connections but also for their physical and mental health.  When they are little and in strollers do not give them a screen…let them explore the world around them with their eyes rather than screens. 

MODELING that our children are more important than our machines is critical.  Far too often a parent drives in a car having conversations with someone on their cell rather than with their child.  At drop off or pick up they have phones, or plugs, in their ears.  Modeling to your children that what everyone or anyone, other than them, has to say to you is more important will encourage them to do the same. They will not give priority to the friend or family they are spending time with and build the essential human connections we need for healthy relationships and growth.  A voice on the other end of a line, or even worse, the typed words of another will take first place.  When a phone at a dinner table is the babysitter, or a distraction from a tantrum, children miss vital opportunities to learn human “survival skills.” These include not learning how to manage anger, sadness, frustration etc.  Screens discourage eye contact, personal contact and connection.  It is essential we remember that our children do as we do and not as we say.  Thus, be mindful of what you do on your machines, our children are watching.

Just as I shared in the previous article about how to set limits, the same rules apply.  Respectful communication and explanation are imperative.  Explain to a child about the new information we obtain, based on science, that if a phone charging in a child’s room is adversely impacting his sleep it needs to be out of the room.  We might get push back, but they are our children and we are the adults.  If we would not allow our children to take drugs or drink alcohol, then why is it okay for them to something harmful with technology?  We are not helping or protecting them, and thus doing our jobs, if we don’t set and impose the necessary limits in this regard.   It is true, a teen may not be as receptive to our concerns about the importance of their sleep for healthy development and growth, but in the long run it will hopefully communicate how much we do love them and care!

Melanie Soloway is Summit Center’s Parent Educator and the Founder and Director of Raising Enlightened Children. Melanie is the mother of three teenagers, two of whom are twice exceptional/2e. She is certified in numerous parenting programs including Positive Discipline, Redirecting Children’s Behavior and Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). Previously, Melanie was a Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles County and the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Empowered Parenting. She is based in Los Angeles and is available to present workshops to your parent group or school.