As parents in this digital era, there’s no avoiding to digital technology. So the best you can do, when it comes to your kids, is navigate it with care, oversight, and lots of communication. For instance, focus on positive reinforcement for good behavior, as much or more as you penalize choices you’d rather they didn’t make.
Learn about the media your kids are consuming and the platforms they use, and make choices about when it’s better to share a good old-fashioned board game for family time, than to watch a movie.
Above all, remember that they are learning from you, so make sure you know enough to guide them through digital options and that you have your own habits in check. Here are some things to keep in mind as you make decisions.
There’s a limit to healthy screen time
There is so much media available online to help you teach your children about every topic imaginable. They can experience new countries and cultures through videos and photos, and they can learn about math and science via online programs. There are educational games galore and sites for creative expression, for all ages.
But being in front of a screen can have a negative effect on children. Excessive screen time has been linked to sleep loss and diminished fine motor development, as well as changed brain development (more on that later). And all screen time is not created equal: watching videos is less engaging than video chatting with grandparents, for instance. One removes opportunities for connection, while the other creates them.
Make sure you know what the guidelines are for your child’s age group and be discerning in what you set them up to do on a screen.
You’re a model, whether you intend to be or not
Observational learning, in which children behave as they see others behave, is an inherent part of childhood development. So it’s important that as you teach your kids how and when to engage with screens, you’re setting a good example. Otherwise, your message might not get through. Don’t want your kid to eat in front of a video?
Make sure the TV is off during meal time. Trying to make sure your child doesn’t get too attached to video games? You might need to check your own behavior and make sure you’re not spending a lot of time playing your own favorite game. Another way to model healthy behavior is to engage in screen activity with your kids, whether that’s watching TV or playing a game.
While doing this, you can talk with them about what they’re seeing and demonstrate good etiquette in playing games with others.
Tech use changes the brain
Screen time affects kids at every level: behavioral, physical, and neurological. A recent study used testing and MRI scans with 3-to 5-year-olds to investigate what effects screen time has on developing brains.
The researchers found that lower levels of literacy and language skills were associated with higher screen use, as well as lower “white matter integrity,” which refers to the brain’s communication network. And an organization concerned with children’s use of digital technology, 5Rights, discussed the issue of the addictive nature of games and apps that results in a reward loop involving dopamine to keep kids playing. This kind of neurological effect suggests that changes need to be made to game design, but as parents, you can interrupt it by limiting the amount of time your kids spend playing games and setting a schedule.
Kids need help
There’s no going back: digital technology is here to stay, and kids are going to want access no matter what you say. Instead of focusing on restrictions and limits, try finding the ways you want your kids to engage digitally and focus on those.
Teach them about related skills, such as empathy, which can prevent cyberbullying and lead to more positive online social interactions, and critical thinking, which can help them be more discerning in what they choose to consume. To support your children in building healthy screen time, you’ll need to get comfortable with these technologies and platforms yourself, which may not sound like an easy proposition. But you can use some of the same tools they do to learn how to navigate the digital world. The more comfortable you are, the better you’ll be able to guide them.
With digital tools available everywhere, you need to be proactive in deciding when, how much, and with what your kids will engage. Remember that not all screen time is equal: some is more socially connecting, and some is more isolating. Do your own research about movies, apps, and games while deciding what you want to guide your children toward.