Child Caring

Why we all need a Digital Sabbath and other tidbits for managing your kids' screens

Dear Barbara,
I'm looking for advice about how to control my daughter's access to social media, internet sites, etc. She's 12, going on 20. You get the picture. Some of her friends are on FB, many have SmartPhones; (she does not but wants one). I think (pray!) it's all innocent (so far) but I know this can turn on a dime into cyberbullying etc., and she could be the victim OR the perpetrator.
Any tips more than welcome!
From: St. Paul mom&pop
I'm a young mom, only 26. I grew up with screens and feel pretty attached to and comfortable around them but it somehow gives me a creepy feeling when my 3 yo plays with my iPhone. His father thinks it's fine, esp in the car. We've begun to argue over this. Is there a right/wrong?
From: BosMom

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Dear StPaul Mom & Pop, BosMom and all the rest of you who struggle with digital questions:
The short answer is that just because technology is out there and marketed even for young kids doesn't mean it belongs in every kids' hands. ( click here to see a sampling of the awfulness that's out there, and what toys not to buy).
"Think of an iPhone as a power saw," suggests pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center for Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's the perfect tool for certain jobs but if you don't use it safely, it's dangerous." Rich has his own website, "Ask the Mediatrician."
His point? Some 10-year-olds are mature enough to have a smart phone and some are not. (Notice we're talking 10- year-olds, not 3 or even 7.)
How do you know if your kid is ready? One way is to try it out and see what happens.
But hold on: Not just, "Here's an iPhone, figure it out."
"Too many parents have checked out of parenting in the digital world" because they are overwhelmed or inept, said Rich in a phone interview. "What will ultimately keep kids safe in this world is the software between their ears."
Developing that software in the brain starts with our own behavior.
Are you a dad who pushes the stroller and texts at the same time, and feels good about it because you're multi-tasking? Think about that baby in the stroller when he's a teen. Here's what he will have absorbed: your device should always be with you; you need to constantly check it to stay connected; it's important enough that it's OK to interrupt whatever else you are doing to keep checking it.
Along the same lines, about that iPhone for your 3-year-old, BosMom: How will he ever learn to amuse himself if he learns at 3 to rely on an external source of entertainment? "Screens are tools that do some things well, but not everything well. They are not good at being the default activity when nothing else is going on," Rich said.
The devices have a place in our lives, but consider what research shows:
Early use and/or too much use can affects the way the brain develops. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens for children under 2. "Young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens," the statement reads in part.
Early use and/or too much use can skew a child's sense of self-esteem. Kids today are learning to equate their sense of self-worth with their ability to be on-line, being viewed by strangers. Listen to this, from Rich:
"I've had [teen] patients tell me what they want to be when they grow up is be a porn star. I say, What? Their idea of self-esteem is having lots of people 'like' you. 'I share, therefore I am,'" he said. Back in the day, he continues, boys might go out and get drunk and act up by hitting mailboxes with baseball bats. "Today, that's not good enough," he said. "They do the crazy behavior but they video it and post it. Otherwise, it might as well not have happened."
So what, exactly, are parents to do?
Rich calls for "mindful media use." Specifically:
* Ask aloud, "Is this [screen] the best tool for the job?" For a preschooler who loves pandas, the computer is the perfect tool for downloading pictures and videos of pandas. And then -- and this is important -- you move on to another activity so that the screen is one activity of many. For a 9-year-old who's going by his bike to a friend's three blocks away, a cell phone, not a smart phone, is a good introductory tool. Is he responsible enough to remember to call to say, "Mom, I got here safely!" A good mantra for parents: We can try this and see how it goes. That leaves room for evaluation by both of you.
* Have conversations. StPaul Mom & Dad,don't shy away from talking with her about the damage cyberbullying can do, about how quickly so-called friends can turn on you, and how the funny selfie that you send to friends can be turned against you. If she dismisses your concerns or isn't interested in the conversation, she's not ready.
* Keep the laptop in a public space, including for doing homework, and definitely at bedtime, for charging. "We're seeing an uptick in sleep problems because kids keep the phone under their pillow on vibrate so they won't miss anything, even if all it is is a WTF text at 3 am," says Rich. "As a result, they aren't getting the deep sleep they need." Their phone is the alarm clock? Buy a cheap alarm clock.
* Monitor their screen use, and let them know you are doing that. "If they can't accept that, they are demonstrating they are not capable of being safe on line," says Rich.
* Keep up with the fads. If you have tweens or teens, do you know what Happy Slapping is? What about Knock-out games? (They are random acts of usually minor violence perpetrated on strangers while being videoed by a friend.) Just as you talk about safe sex, talk about cyber safety.
* Don't be afraid to be strict. "So they tell their friends, 'My parents are really strict.' Then it's done. They move on," says Rich. Obviously, it's easier if you talk to the parents of your kid's friends so you're all on the same page.
Lastly, here's my personal favorite of Rich's suggestions:
* Adopt a Digital Sabbath, once a week: 24 hours of no screen.
"We do it in our family, every Sunday," said Rich, who has a 10- and 8-year-old.
"We turn everything off, all of us. It makes you look at each other, really be with each other," he said. "If you start at a young age, it's just part of their life."
"Really?" I ask him. "How hard is it to not use your cellphone?"
"It feels like freedom." .
We're on the phone, but I can sense he's smiling. Something tells me, the idea will catch on.