Keeping children safe while still giving them room to grow and develop can feel like a delicate tightrope walk for parents, especially during the pandemic. Parents often wonder when to introduce screens and devices into their children’s lives, what kind of restrictions to enforce, how closely to monitor their kids’ behavior, and how to respect privacy while still looking out for their children’s social, mental, cognitive and physical wellbeing.
To help parents navigate these thorny issues, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has compiled nine key takeaways from its recent article on parental controls, monitoring apps, and media plans, provided by leaders in the fields of public health, education, psychology, and parenting, which featured several prominent experts in the field. Read on below, and be sure to watch the experts discussing this important topic at the Ask the Experts webinar, “All in the Family: A Conversation about Media Rules, Parental Controls, and Family Media Plans,” which covered the latest evidence-based advice about these topics, and provided practical tips on how to structure and supervise digital media use for years to come. Watch here!
1. WALK THE WALK
Your children are imitating the behavior you model, so start by setting a good example. If you often speak with your children while looking down at your phone, they will do the same. If you are on your tablet first thing in the morning and at the dinner table, they will want to do the same. Establish your household rules, and stick to them yourself.
2. MAKE A PLAN
Take time to speak with your co-parent(s) and establish what matters to you with regard to how your children spend their time at different ages, what their needs are and what they are seeing and doing when they are on a screen. It’s critical for you to consider the whole child, including their social-emotional and physical well-being, and to integrate tech into the larger picture of family life and values. Take a look at existing family media agreements, such as the one posted on the AAP website, and cut and paste what will work for your family and your expectations. Then, pick a moment when everyone is fed, rested, calm, and cooperative to begin a conversation about digital media use.
3. REMOTE THE CONTROL
Appropriate control of your kids’ devices and the content your kids see will be determined by the age and maturity level of your children, as well as your own values and parenting style. Children benefit from having firm rules around screen time, as well as from seeing healthy attitudes and behaviors regarding screen use modeled by the adults in their lives. If you have younger children or children who are just acquiring a device, you should monitor their use more heavily in order to help them navigate options and make good choices. As your children get older, re-evaluate your strategies and adapt to your unique family needs and circumstances.
4. TALK IT OUT
Depending on their ages, involve your children in the parental control set-up and rule-setting, which models the open and honest conversation and behaviors that you expect from your children. In addition, take the time to speak with your whole family about whether parental control or monitoring apps are right for you, and keep the conversation going throughout use so that you can make adjustments as appropriate. Ongoing discussions aimed at supporting children’s development of self-regulation skills should focus on positive features of the digital world, including learning prosocial digital skills. Encourage your children to share their concerns with or objections to parental controls, and try to address them head on.
5. FIND THE RIGHT TIME
How early is too early? The first three-to-five years of life is a sensitive time for the wiring of children’s brains, so it’s best to delay exposure to screen time as long as possible, and then to select slow, developmentally appropriate shows with minimal screen transitions to avoid overstimulation. In middle childhood, be mindful of your children’s growing brain and your family values, keeping a close eye on the content your children watch and the games they play. Most social media platforms require a minimum age of 13, and experts agree that children under this age should not have their own online accounts.
Most experts agree that teens aged 12-15 are the most vulnerable group for cyber safety risks, so it can be helpful to give children their first personal device at around eleven, so that you can set rules around screen use when your children are more receptive and willing to comply with them. Remember that your job as a parent is to prepare them to be self-regulated, responsible adults; at some point during their teenage years, the time will come for you to loosen your restrictions. The key is to keep the conversation open and consider your teens’ requests for autonomy and agency with an open mind, reminding them what you need to feel comfortable and what they need to do to keep themselves safe.
6. SCREENS AREN’T THE NEW TIME OUT
Experts recommend against using screen time as a punishment or reward, since it can increase your children’s attraction to digital media, and decrease their attraction to other required activities like chores and homework, as well as other fun activities such as reading, sports, or music. In fact, research shows that when families use screen time as a reward for good behavior, children end up engaged in more screen time overall. Sticking to pre-determined boundaries around screen usage, regardless of good or poor behavior, will help children accept your guidelines.
7. UP AND APP’EM
If you decide to choose a monitoring app for your family, there are four key areas to consider: control, coverage, simplicity and value. A helpful app will allow you to specify limits for particular activities and manage devices and apps that don’t require internet data, as well as provide wide coverage, addressing the multi-device and multi-platform reality of family life. It should be simple, providing parents with easy ways to solve complex problems, without long manuals or hours of set-up. Finally, it should provide value, freeing up your time and reducing the amount of arguing about tech.
8. KNOW THE PITFALLS
It’s important to consider the risks of using monitoring apps, including how the data obtained by the control application is being used and stored. Additionally, parental control apps may slow the development of self-regulation skills in children or sidestep the impulse to have open conversations about the positives and negatives of technology, if you rely on technology to control problematic screen usage. In addition, you may wonder whether it is okay to track your children’s locations. If your children feel they are being tracked because you don’t trust them to make good decisions, using GPS tracking technologies will only create more tension in your relationship. If your kids know they are being tracked and feel safer because of it, it can be a helpful and supportive tool. As your children get older and want to find their own independence, it’s vital to be honest and open with them; tell them whether you’re tracking their movements or not, and explain the reasons why. For all of these apps, ask yourself if the reason you feel the need to use parental control apps in the first place is that, deep down, you know your children aren’t actually ready for the device or technology they’re using.
9. SIGN THE CONTRACT
Once you have considered all of the options and taken the time to speak with your co-parent(s) and children, it’s time to make a media plan and/or contract. Both lay out expectations about when, where, and for how long devices can be used, as well as the kind of content that can be consumed. Even though they are designed for children, they are equally helpful for parents, encouraging you to think about ideal situations for your family. Creating a contract allows you the opportunity to address topics you may otherwise not talk about until after there’s already an issue, while allowing your kids to see and understand where your boundaries are.
10. HIT “RESET”
If you are struggling to reach an agreement and convince your children to find a screen-life balance, you are not alone! When it comes to reevaluating your screen time rules and hitting a “reset button,” consider taking a digital detox for twenty-four hours each week, adjusting the whole house rules to include no media use after 10:00pm, putting your phones to bed in a common space, laying the phone down to “take a nap” while you go out for a bike ride, downloading mindfulness apps that remind kids to “stop the scroll”. No matter your circumstance or how long you’ve had a media plan in place, take time to reconnect and reevaluate frequently and ditch the rules that aren’t working for you and try something new. You can always keep your children busy the old fashioned way: encourage other activities such as bike riding, a building project, a safe summer camp, a walk, reading a book together, baking a cake – the possibilities are endless!
The Institute wishes to thank the experts who contributed their insights and expertise to “All in the Family: How Parental Controls, Monitoring Apps, and Media Plans can Support Health Digital Media Use,” from which these key takeaways were extracted.
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, see their website.