A few years ago, I was driving my son and his three teammates to a hockey tournament in Montreal when I noticed it was oddly quiet in my car. Looking around, I saw four boys, all best pals, texting each other while they sat in the same car. That is when the GLOVE BOX RULE was born (all cell phones in glove box when in car). Quickly followed was the HAT RULE (all phones off and in my baseball cap when eating in restaurants), followed by a number of other technology interventions all aimed at achieving one simple goal: normal human interaction.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that technology has changed the landscape of childhood and adolescence. According to a recent Pew Report, 78 percent of teens have a mobile phone; half of them have a smartphone. Many preteens have phones that allow them to access the Internet (and the unfiltered information that lives on the web), which entices them to text and tweet, rather than sit and talk.
Technology is not going to go away. But is there a way that parents can manage how technology is used in their homes and by their children? Only a few years ago, child development experts were urging parents to make sure the home computer was in a public place in the house in order to monitor both content and time spent on the Internet. Now, our children have that technology in their hands.
While it is more challenging than ever to teach responsible technology use, here are some suggestions for parents to consider:
- Remember you are a parent. You set the rules in your house. While you may hear that “everybody else” has a mobile phone, an X-box, a Facebook account, etc., kids vary on their ability to use these things responsibly. They may think they can’t survive without one right now, but the truth is they can and they will.
- Practice what you preach. As parents we need to have similar standards for our own use of technology. Put the phone away in the car (parents texting while driving is a certain endorsement for a teen to do the same), when you are at the dinner table, or when you are at one of your child’s performances, games, or activities. By modeling that you can live without technology, your child can learn the same.
- Be clear about expectations. It is important to have a conversation about the rules of using technology that include clear prohibitions for things like texting while driving (or biking), sexting, cyber-bullying, or giving out personal information on the web. Not only does this encourage safe behavior, it eliminates the “you never told me” defense later on.
- Collect devices at night. Kids can get caught up in using technology late at night at the expense of sleep and during a time when inappropriate use is more tempting. A daily habit of turning in phones, tablets, computers, TV and video games at least one hour prior to bed time can lead to more responsible use and much better sleep.
- Show me the money. Mobile phones are expensive. Create a sensible budget and show them the bill. If they go over this amount, come up with a way to pay it off, or consider prepaid plans.
- Use parental restrictions. While it is harder to keep certain content out of a child’s hands than in the past, parental controls are available for many mobile devices in addition to televisions and video games. With iPhones, for example, they can be accessed at Settings > General > Restrictions.
- Family Matters. If parents can remain engaged in their children’s lives, they will have less time and less of a need to get lost in technology. Learn more about how to remain an engaged family and to reduce tech time by visiting National Institute of Health’s “We Can” Program which has great ideas for enhancing children’s activity and nutrition.
By following these simple suggestions you can help your child to think of technology as a tool to assist them in their lives, rather than something that demands their immediate and constant attention.
David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program.