Fortnite, Minecraft, Snapchat, and Instagram. These are the places and spaces where today’s kids spend a lot of time. They’d spend all of their time there if you’d let them! When you ask parents what worries them most about technology use and their kids, like I do, they answer too much screen time.
Believe it or not, kids are starting to worry about this too.
As a teacher of digital media literacy (yes, that’s a thing at some lucky schools), I help students reflect upon their screen use. Every year I have seventh graders track all of their activities on a typical weekend day. When they return to school, they organize this data, making colorful charts that show how they spent their time. When students see the towering bar that represents screen time casting its long shadow over every other activity on their charts—such as eating, sleeping, and playing outdoors—they’re surprised. Dismayed even. Many are unaware of how many hours they spend staring at screens until they see this represented on a piece of paper.
Next, I challenge students to go on a 24-hour “digital media vacation.” Even with what they’ve just learned about their screen time use, this assignment invariably elicits a litany of complaints:
“But I have to get my text messages.”
“I can’t be out of touch with my soccer team.”
“How in the world will I take and post photos?”
“What about my Snapstreaks?”
“My online gaming friends will think I died.”
“This is child abuse!”
Despite these protests, I hold firm. And guess what? Most students end up enjoying their screen-free time. They return to school with stories about venturing outside, strumming a guitar, or even (heaven forbid) going on bike rides with their families. Many even ask when I’ll assign the homework again.
The point here is this: Kids crave structure, even with their coveted devices. Remember, technology is designed to capture and hold their attention. Kids are toast when it comes to the ding of a new text message, or a YouTube video that cues up immediately after the one they’re watching ends. And just try getting a kid to walk away in the middle of a game of Fortnite like Jimmy Kimmel tried to do in this video. It’s sure to launch World War III. Kids need help managing their devices, and they’re beginning to realize it. That’s why parent-child technology agreements work.
Maintain peace in your family by having an agreement in place before giving your children a smartphone, gaming device, tablet, or any type of connected technology. Doing so will help them manage their powerful attention-hungry devices.
An effective parent-child agreement should cover the following topics:
- Screen time. Decide in advance how much time you’ll allow your child to spend online, during the week and on weekends.
- Privacy and personal information. Discuss what to keep private online. Decide what’s safe to share online, and what’s not.
- Tell your children how you expect them to treat others online, and what they should do if they witness others being treated cruelly.
- Reputation management. Make sure your children understand that everything they post online is permanent and can be seen by anyone and everyone. Their digital reputations will open or close doors to future opportunities. Be sure they understand how important it is to make a good impression online.
- Inappropriate information. Explain to your children that they should never use their devices to search, ask for, or share inappropriate information (yes, this includes nude pics—this is otherwise known as “sexting”).
- Getting Help. Be sure your children know they can turn to you or another trusted adult when they need help or run into problems online. When they do turn to you, remember to be nonjudgmental.
You can download an agreement that includes all of these topics here.
There are lots of other activities families can do together that will help children learn how to use devices wisely. I offer dozens of ideas in Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationships with Technology (HarperCollins Leadership, Jan. 2019).
No matter what you do, keep in mind that screens aren’t going away any time soon. So talk to your children about their screen time. You might learn something too!
Author: Diana Graber. Author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationships with Technology (HarperCollins Leadership, Jan. 2019) and founder of Cyberwise.org and CyberCivics.com.