How to Raise Healthy Kids in a Digital Age
Parenting has always been a challenge, and it’s only become more complex as children are born into and grow up in the digital age. We don’t understand all the effects of social media, online gaming, and other screen time activities on children, and we continue to receive conflicting information.
Sometimes the kids understand tech better than their parents. And how can parents monitor what their kids are doing in the digital world? There’s a lot to think about, but fundamental truths haven’t changed.
As with any other aspect of life, raising healthy kids in the digital age calls for flexibility, creativity, openness, and leading by example. Create space for a digital presence in your child’s world proactively so you can shape it rather than it taking over.
Aim for compromise
Screens are ubiquitous. Even if you don’t allow them at home, kids will be exposed to them at school or at friends’ and relatives’ homes. So strive for balance, rather than complete restriction. Decide when you’re ready to let your kid have their own smartphone or tablet, and have some conversations with them ahead of time about what they’ll use it for and how often. Some parents make a contract with their kids. If you do this, check in regularly to see what your child is doing and address any violations to your agreement in a timely manner. If you remember that it’s probably a matter of when, not if, they break one of the rules, you’ll be able to keep a calmer head when that time comes.
Educate about cyberbullying
No one wants their kid to be bullied, online or off, and what’s more, no parent wants to find out their kid is bullying someone else. Before screens, the rules could be learned in social settings and at school. But with the relative lack of oversight and anonymity digital tools offer, it’s easier for kids (and adults, for that matter) to be mean to each other. Have a direct conversation with your children about what cyberbullying is and how to respond if it happens to them or they witness it. Hint: It’s better to respond and seek resolution in person than online.
Use video chat
It’s no secret that sitting in front of a screen for hours on end isn’t the best for kids. But do we really know just what the effects of screen time on developing brains are, especially on young children? A review of various studies out there found that there are cognitive costs to too much screen time, but certain uses, such as video chatting with relatives, can be more helpful than harmful. Video chatting allows for a true conversation that includes nonverbal communication and can help support relationships with people who may not live nearby.
Be a good role model
It’s not just our kids who need a healthy relationship with tech—we do too. The first thing to do if you want your kids to spend less time on screens is to set a good example by putting away your own devices more. Don’t want them to have phones at the dinner table? You better not either. And not only that, but talk with your kids about what you do on the computer and why. Engage them in conversations about the benefits and drawbacks of Instagram or online gaming. Be thoughtful in your own habits of picking up and putting down the phone. Even when you’re not discussing it with your children, they’ll notice what you do.
Watch media as a family
Sharing media can certainly include movie night, but you might also consider viewing TED Talks or YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts with your kids. Kids use digital tools in their homework and to learn about the world, so encourage that behavior by consuming educational media with them. Here are a few TED Talk suggestions to get you started. By making this an activity you do together, you’ll contribute to family bonding.
Maintain tech-free zones
Make sure you create time that doesn’t involve screens. The dinner table, an outing to the park, or the drive to/from school are all good options. This goes back to the idea of balance. When you allow kids time to connect with their friends online as well as take them out into nature, for example, they learn to appreciate the various ways they can interact with others. Rather than simply telling them to put down their devices, take them out and show them what the world has to offer.
Respect social media
Much of the concern about digital has to do with how much time kids spend on social media. And while there’s lots of grousing about the risks of social media, we sometimes overlook its benefits. Sites like Instagram and Twitter can help kids stay connected with friends and discover new interests. For LGBTQ kids or others with marginalized identities, digital platforms can offer a way (and sometimes the only way) to find community. Have conversations with your kids about what they’re doing on social media and make sure they understand that what they share online never really goes away. Keep track of who they’re connecting with, so you can find out early if a questionable stranger is interacting with your child.
Keep the conversation going
Remember that contract mentioned earlier about tech use? Don’t treat it as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing, but something you discuss regularly—there’s a better chance of it working that way. In order to not let the digital world distract your child from the physical world, make it part of your regular conversations rather than just bringing it up when something might be going wrong.
Be curious about what your child does on the computer and why. Ask to see the pictures they’re looking at on Instagram. And discuss with your child why everything they see on the Internet isn’t always as it appears. Just as with advertising in the old days, curated online personalities can produce insecurity around not living up to impossible standards. Help your children understand that what they see online isn’t necessarily a reflection of reality.
By Morgen Henderson