It’s an old adage that kids think they are smarter than their parents but that either over time or in any one of countless sit-com scenarios, they realize they are wrong, wrong wrong.
Except when it comes to technology.
Kids often really do know much more about technology than their parents. As a developmental and clinical psychologist, I find this a fascinating phenomena that has significant implications for growth, health and society.
As a parent, it freaks me out.
The problem with freaking out is that it often leads in one of two directions (and sometimes both). First, you may avoid the problem altogether. “Whatever my child is doing behind that closed bedroom door is fine. And I don’t want to know about it.” Second, you might try to annihilate the problem. “No access to the Internet, computers, cell phones or tablets. Or to any friend who might have any Internet access or technology that I can’t monitor 24/7.”
In psychology, we call that the fight or flight response. If there’s a threat, you either run away from it or you try to kill it. It’s a useful strategy for dealing with hungry lions, but not so much for most parenting issues.
Instead, try some of these ideas that are proven to work. They’ll help you reclaim your parenting confidence:
Keep devices out of the bedroom
This is my strictest Rule for families. There really is no good reason to have an Internet-connected device in the bedroom and lots of good reasons not to. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children slept significantly less if they had devices in their bedrooms. The study also found that more screen time is associated with less sleep. Young people get less sleep in part because they stay awake (often without their parents’ knowledge) on their devices gaming, messaging or engaging in objectionable activities. Late night sees a proliferation of online pornography, self-harm sites, cyber-bullying and undesirable interactions. Moreover, many phones are kept close at hand to awaken the child whenever a message comes in. Even the type of light emitted by devices interferes with the sleep cycle.
Gather all the devices each night, plug them in somewhere where you control access, put up with the complaints for a week or two and then enjoy better sleep for the whole family.
Be a good role model
Do you respond to messages during family meals? When you watch television, how many screens are active? Has your child ever told you that you spend too much time behind screens? I can’t tell you how many parents come to my office complaining about their kids’ overuse and spend the entire time in the waiting room glued to their own screens. It may sound trite, but Monkey See, Monkey Do. Young children learn how to act by observing their parents. Even adolescents, who actively seem to reject everything about their parents, look to them as role models. The Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University recently published a study showing that the more time parents spend behind screens, the more time their kids spend. Assess your own use, and ask yourself what your behavior teaches your children.
Have a plan
Would you toss your 16-year-old the keys to your car with the hope that they’ll be a safe driver? No, you’ll have a plan that includes driver’s education, supervised practice and proof that your child can use the car responsibly. You’ll probably also come to an agreement about when the car can be used, where it can be taken and the child’s responsibility for fueling it up.
Technology is no different. In fact, your child is probably going to spend much more time on the Internet than in a car. You need to decide how technology should be used in your home, acceptable and unacceptable activities, and the consequences both for violating and following the rules. Discuss this with your child and prepare to negotiate (at least to some extent). It is important to involve your child in creating a technology agreement. Children who take part in creating agreements are more invested in following them. Write the agreement up into a digital use contract and all of you sign it. That way everybody will know what to expect from each other.
Get involved with their online lives
As if you didn’t already have too much to do, get on the Internet with your child. You don’t have to know about every app they use or web site they visit, but get a sense of their technology use. The Family Online Safety Institute has some great tools to help you understand the online world from a parenting perspective. But take the plunge. Research something with your child, play games with them on their iPhone, explore social media together. Start when they’re young — children with parents who are appropriately involved in their lives develop good habits that serve them well in the future. As your children grow older and more independent, you’ll have to modify your involvement. But even adolescents enjoy gaming with you, especially when they win. Which they almost always will.
Keep involved with the offline lives
It’s not all about the Internet. It’s about life, online and off. Eat meals with your kids (even adolescents benefit from family dinners). Take them to museums (but certainly visit the website with them beforehand). Visit a park. See a movie in a movie theater. The online world offers endless opportunities, but so does the offline world. The importance of your face-to-face relationship with your kids still trumps their online activities.
Just because you don’t know as much about technology as your children doesn’t mean you are any less a parent. You can help your child develop a positive and healthy relationship with technology, even if you are less comfortable online then they are.