It’s clear that technology is here to stay and the world is becoming only more digitally driven. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Technology can be empowering for kids of all ages, with tools that help children learn in fun and engaging ways, express their creativity and stay connected to others. Children who are tech-savvy will also be better prepared for a workforce that will be predominantly digital.
At the same time, parents naturally worry about their kids accessing inappropriate content online, the impact of too much screen time on healthy development and their children becoming tethered to technology.
As with most situations, a balanced approach to these new challenges works best. “The most important step is to establish a balanced or sustainable relationship with tech,” says the social psychologist Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.” You can liken it to aiming for a healthy diet, Dr. Alter explains: “Older kids understand the concept of balance intuitively — they know that it’s important to eat healthy foods alongside candy and dessert, and the same is true of the ’empty calories’ that come from spending too much time passively gazing at screens. There’s a time for screens, but not at the expense of time for physical activity and connecting with real people in real time.”
Some things to keep in mind as you try to strike this delicate balance:
There’s no single recipe for success, but you’ll know it when you see it. Balance for your family will look different than it will for your neighbor because every family is unique and parenting styles and values vary. In general, though, if your family can reap the benefits of technology without feeling many of the harmful effects and you feel confident in how your children are using technology, you’ve likely found balance.
Watch for the warning signs of unhealthy tech usage. The psychologist Jon Lasser, who co-wrote “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World,” says parents should note when:
- Kids complain that they’re bored or unhappy when they don’t have access to technology
- Tantrums or harsh resistance occur when you set screen time limits
- Screen time interferes with sleep, school and face-to-face communication
Be prepared to revisit this topic again and again. As your children grow, so will their involvement with technology. Also, it’s difficult to predict what the digital world will look like even just a few years from now. Your definition of healthy and unhealthy tech usage will need regular updates. Fun times ahead!
Some tips to evaluate the quality of your children’s digital interactions (which you should do regularly):
- Are they accessing age-appropriate content?
- Are the apps they use interactive and thought-provoking rather than passive? Not all screen time is equal. Going back to the food analogy, 100 calories from a doughnut is not the same as 100 calories from a salad; an hour watching YouTube videos isn’t the same as an hour spent in a digital art program.
- Are the privacy settings for older children’s social media and other online accounts set to restrict what strangers can see and who can contact your children?
Still set screen time limits to balance online and offline activities. Although quality is most important, you’ll probably still want to set some screen time limits for your family to preserve time for activities beyond screens and tech. While the debate on exactly how many hours kids can spend on their screens before it becomes unhealthy rages on, you can draw firm lines for tech-free times, such as during dinner, in the car, or on school nights.