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Childhood Wellness

The Fair and Easy Way to Monitor Your Child’s Screen Time

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Spratt

With the holidays coming up, your kids may be soon be opening any one of a host of new connected devices. This opens them up to the internet and a world of creativity, learning, and connection, however, the downsides of the connected world are also well-documented. We talked to our panel of experts about how you can keep your kids safe online without restricting their freedom or dignity.

Elizabeth Milovidov, Ph.D., J.D.

Founder, DigitalParentingCoach.com

How can parents determine how much screen time is too much screen time for their child? 

Screen time, screen limits, and screen balance are timely topics of concern as pediatricians, psychologists, child protection experts, and other professionals research and perform studies on the effects of screen time on our children. At this point, we do not have all the answers, but we all agree moderation is key.

Parenting in the digital age is no different than the parenting of our parents, except today’s children have more technology and tech toys with which to play. Just as you do not let your adoring 8-year-old stuff himself with chocolates all day — no matter how delicious they may be — why would you let him watch YouTube for hours on end? No matter how enthralling it may be. 

Takeaways: Set and maintain screen limits that work for your family and your schedule. Understand that not all screen time is equal: creative uses of apps and tech win out over mindless, violent, video games every time. Be flexible and don’t beat yourself up when limits don’t always work. Just reset and start again.

How can parents monitor their children’s online behavior without overstepping boundaries? 

Parents can monitor what their children are doing by asking “How was your day?” and “How was your online day?”  They can also use the WWW method created by The ParentZone to start a conversation:

  • What are you doing online? (what activities do you like?) 
  • Where are you going online? (what websites, what apps?) 
  • Who are you talking to online? (friends? multiplayer chat session with strangers?)
  • When are you going online? (with the sitter? grandparents? on playdates?)

Parents can also use a family media agreement to set up how the family will act online.

This agreed family plan about how you, as a family, will deal with computers, smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, e-readers, and so forth, can include how parents will monitor tech use as well as consequences for irresponsible use. 

Some parents may call this type of agreement a family media agreement, a family tech plan, a technology agreement, or a phone contract. Whatever title you use, this agreement is still a useful plan to hold your children accountable, and parents, too!

Takeaways: Take a peek at existing family media agreements and then cut and paste what will work for you. Enforce a mealtime and bedtime “curfew” for media devices. Make sure everyone is able to contribute to the conversation. Establish reasonable but firm rules about cell phones, texting, internet, and social media use. Consider how to handle tech when parents are not around. 

Don’t be afraid to modify the agreement as your children outgrow certain limits and restrictions. Be prepared to listen, advise, and find creative solutions. 

Parents should strive for balance in their family media plan so young people can get outside and engage in other activities. Parents can use the media plan as a teaching moment regarding sharing images and data: photographs cannot be taken of others and shared online without asking permission first. 

Finally, when your children ARE online, aim to cultivate their digital skills, foster online learning, and boost their social and emotional learning.

At what age is it appropriate for a child to have their own mobile device?

There isn’t a magical number that defines the appropriate age for a child to have their own mobile device. It really depends on the child’s maturity and ability to be responsible. Parents may also want to factor in why their child needs a mobile device. For example, is the child taking public transport alone? Does the child need to contact a parent at a moment’s notice?

If parents do decide on a phone, they have to decide whether to provide a smartphone or basic cell phone. I don’t know a tween who doesn’t want a smartphone, and I would caution that adding internet capability will take parents to another level of responsibility. 

But all of these issues can be handled positively if parents are digital and tech savvy, and believe any mobile device is a learning tool for digital skills. Involved digital parents also know their active support will prepare their child as a responsible user. 

Takeaways: Buy a basic phone or smartphone model. Set phone limits. Agree on cellphone use and purchase of apps, music, etc. Be a good role model as a parent.

How should parents start a conversation with their children about the dangerous parts of the internet?

Before starting a conversation about the negative aspects of social media, internet, and technology, parents should remember the benefits and opportunities. Children today are growing up in a digital age that provides a wealth of opportunity, learning, sharing, and networking, and the digital delights and discoveries are far from over. 

Fear and scaremongering will not prevent children from discovering or hearing about online dangers. Parents and caregivers can raise children to be critical thinkers, with digital skills, resilience, and empathy, which in turn will provide children with the tools to avoid online dangers.

This subject may be one of the most difficult for parents, but one of the best ways to help children navigate the digital highway is to communicate with them about their activities — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Parents may not always like what they hear, but they should continue to bring their familial and cultural values in a fun and non-judgmental way. 

Takeaways: Be open and listen — really listen — to your child and make sure they know they can ALWAYS talk to you about anything.

Dr. Jodi Gold

Director, Pediatric & Adult Psychiatry, Gold Center

How can parents determine how much screen time is too much screen time for their child? 

The quality of the screen time, not the quantity, is what matters. Not all screen time is created equal. I love when kids are writing, drawing, learning and creating online. What parents really need to monitor is passive media use, where the child is merely consuming and not creating.

Screen time is a problem when it impacts your child’s functioning. It should not interfere with sleep, meal times, school, or socializing in the real world. Each child and family is unique. 

I would limit screen time as much as possible prior to the age of 2. For toddlers and young children, the goal is to co-engage with family around technology, and use it for learning and creativity. Prior to the age of 8, the amount of time that your child is on devices is directly related to the amount of time that their parents use devices. Parents must model balance if they hope to teach their children how to manage screen time long-term.

How can parents monitor their children’s online behavior without overstepping boundaries? 

The goal for screen-smart parenting in 2020 is to cultivate digital citizenship, online resilience and strong identity development. The goal is not to restrict but rather to teach your child how to use technology productively to feel stronger, smarter, and more connected. 

Do not lie or “spy” on your children. By doing this, you send the message that you do not trust them, and that there is something secretive and bad about screen time. Be honest that you are monitoring their online presence. There is no privacy online. If the NSA, Facebook and foreign governments can monitor your child’s online activities, then certainly parents should be allowed. Children understand there is no privacy. It is the parents who have more difficulty with privacy issues. 

Our parents respected our privacy, and did not listen to our phone calls or read our diaries. The pink diaries with the little keys are still private and that privacy should be respected. However, in 2020, there is nothing online that is private. 

Kids also need to understand the modern-day nuances of “social media privacy.” Fake Instagram or Snapchat accounts are not more private than public Instagram accounts. If you post it online, someone else can use or misuse it. 

It is important to help school-age children understand how they present themselves online. Parents should check their kids’ TikTok videos and SnapChat stories. It is wonderful to be creative and silly, but we want our children’s online identity to be authentic, private, and safe.

At what age is it appropriate for a child to have their own mobile device?

There are no evidence-based guidelines for when children should have their own devices. It depends on the child, family, and situation. 

There are some basic parameters. Young children do not need their own devices. Tablets are better than smartphones for toddlers and younger children. As soon as children can pick up a Cheerio, they have the fine motor skills necessary to pinch and swipe. 

If parents choose to give a younger child a phone or tablet, they should manage what is loaded on the device, and the Internet should be blocked or limited. Parents should always have access to passwords even as children get older. 

The average age for kids to get their first phone is approximately 10-11 years old. This age varies based on family, community, and school. There have been movements to get families to wait until 8th grade but those initiatives do not work in every community. 

Your child should get a phone when they can use it as a tool, not a toy. Kids will often get their first phone when they begin to leave school on their own. Getting a phone is usually linked to the increased independence of middle school, however, there should be clear expectations when giving your child a phone for the first time. Some of my basic guidelines include:

  • No sleeping with the phone
  • Phone stays in backpack or locker during school day 
  • Phone use will be limited at meals
  • All passwords will be shared
  • They will take good care of expensive devices
  • They will be safe and kind

Each family must decide when a child “needs” and is ready for a phone. I recommend giving phones to kids at earlier ages if they are traveling long distances to school, are at home due to illness frequently, or are dealing with living with parents who are divorced or who live far away.

How should parents start a conversation with their children about the dangerous parts of the internet?

Online safety is critical but the discussion should be age-appropriate. From a young age, children should be told not to interact with strangers online and never to share personal information. YouTube is a good discussion starter with younger children. Young children should not post anything public on YouTube and settings on all games should be private. 

Parents should have a one “free-pass rule.” Children can go to their parents with any problems or mistakes they have made online without fear of punishment (at least once). The open dialogue gives parents an opportunity to be a parent online and to help their child navigate the digital world safely. 

Children need to “skin their knees online” in order to build resilience. A child’s long term safety may depend on a parent’s ability to keep conversations open and reciprocal. Tweens and teens can easily go “underground” if they fear their parent’s wrath. Those kids are left to navigate the digital world on their own.

In the end, parents must not be fearful. Grown ups do not need a Ph.D. in computer science to understand the digital landscape. Simply ask your children to give you a tour of their devices and digital lives. Take an interest in the games and social medial that your children enjoy. 

Parents must be present and learn about their child’s digital journey. In 2020, parents must raise their kids both online and offline. Good luck with your family’s digital journey. 

Brad Berens

Chief Strategy Officer, Center for the Digital Future, USC Annenberg; Principal, Big Digital Idea Consulting

How can parents determine how much screen time is too much screen time for their child?

There’s no magic number of minutes or hours. Parents need to watch for negative behaviors that might be phone-related, like mood swings whenever a kid has been using their phone. 

Where the phone is might be more important than how often or for how long the kid uses the phone. Parents should have clearly communicated rules and expectations like, “You don’t have your phone in your bedroom overnight,” and “no phones at the dinner table.” If a kid needs their phone for schoolwork, then it should be on “Do Not Disturb”. 

Most importantly, parents need to model healthy phone use for their children: don’t be a hypocrite and have your phone next to you at night or at the dinner table. With very young kids, resist the urge to hand over your phone or tablet whenever the kid is bored or restless. Keep old-fashioned paper and crayons handy for these moments.

How can parents monitor their children’s online behavior without overstepping boundaries?

The trick here is to be transparent and sensitive. Transparent means don’t lie or spy: before you hand over the phone the first time, you need to tell your kid that you will look at her or his phone whenever you choose to do so. Sensitive means that you need to understand that your kid will be embarrassed by you no matter how cool you think you are. If your kid doesn’t want you to post, comment, or like on their social media account, then respect that. She needs to have some semblance of control of her social world, just like you do. 

This is the difference between privacy and dignity. Your minor child has no right to privacy but she does have a right to dignity. And even better than monitoring is encouraging your child to share what’s happening on their TikTok, Instagram, etc. If you are lucky enough that she does share something, then your job is to listen and appreciate rather than to judge and condemn (This is hard).

What age is it appropriate for a child to have their own mobile device?

Delay giving your child their own mobile device for as long as possible: until she is in double digits at the earliest. “Mobile devices” include smartphones, tablets, and iPod Touches (these are basically iPhones without the voice and data plans, a.k.a. gateway drugs). 

She will tell you that all her friends have their own phones even when it isn’t accurate, so be ready to chat with other parents to see what’s really true. However, when more than half of her friends have phones, then she’ll be cut off from important peer interaction if she doesn’t have one. At that point, there are some important conversations to have before you go to the store. 

First, the grownups have to get aligned to make sure they have the same expectations. Second, ask your child to propose the first draft of rules for phone use. Then the parents go over the rules with each other. Finally, the parents and the child should back-and-forth to finalize the rules. 

What advice do you have for parents in starting a conversation with their children about the dangerous parts of the internet?

The most dangerous parts of the internet for kids have nothing to do with pedophiles, cults, or drugs. Those things do exist online, but your kid is much more likely to be the victim of cyberbullying by her peers or to be a cyberbully herself. Parents need to explain, patiently, that the rules about offline behavior don’t change just because you’re online. Don’t be mean or cruel. Don’t lie or spread rumors. And don’t accept such behavior from others. 

Kids also need to understand that the internet is written in laundry pen (indelible ink) and that even if things seem to disappear on Snapchat, it’s ridiculously easy to screen-capture something private and ephemeral and then share it. That’s also the real reason why teens should never sext (which includes sending full or partially nude pictures): sexual messages and images are one click from a worldwide audience. 

Regardless of your moral or religious convictions about teen sex, your more effective argument will be the practical one: teens shouldn’t expect their peers to resist temptation and impulse, so don’t provide opportunity in the first place.

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