Technology. It’s made things both easier and harder. And parenting is no exception.
One of the best things we can do as parents today is to talk with each other about how we manage kids and technology in our homes. When we talk about it, we discover we’re not alone with the struggles, and we share ideas that could help each other out.
That’s what I’m hoping to do today in sharing how we’ve managed technology in the home. Maybe it’ll give you some ideas for things to try. I hope it will also give you some encouragement in the long journey that is raising kids – because we all need that regularly 🙂
I love technology. I’ve been fascinated with computers since I was a kid. In the 1980s at school, the teachers handed me new software to test out and tell them how to use it. In the early 1990s, I was already coding. By 1998, I’d discovered the internet and my mind was blown by the possibilities.
Then I went off to do a Computer Science and Technology degree and made my career in IT.
That’s just to give you some context, so that you know I’m not a “technology is evil!” kind of parent, nor am I a techno-phobe.
Being in IT means I’ve seen the best in technology – and the worst.
I think digital music is the best thing since sliced bread. Digital books? Well. That’s convenient for sure, but I still prefer the physical books.
The ability to keep in touch with friends and family no matter where they are in the world? Priceless.
The fact that it also means strangers can contact your children? Downright scary.
Aside from that, overuse of technology has changed who we are as people. Our communication skills, relationships, and ability to concentrate are all affected. There are squillions of articles and studies out there about it. Having worked in the IT industry for more than twenty years, I’ve seen that some of the skills lacking in IT workers are interpersonal and communication skills. Things like being able to hear and understand what the users require, and communicating how to use things in a way that the average person can understand. It doesn’t matter if someone is brilliant at coding. If they don’t understand what the users need the software or app to actually do, they won’t produce what is really required. Coding is easy to learn for those who are interested in it. It’s the other soft skills that are more difficult to develop, and I think it’s easier to do that when you’re younger.
So naturally when I became a parent, I put a lot of thought into how we would manage the relationship between our kids and technology.
It didn’t take long before we witnessed the different effect technology has on each of our three kids. We’ve always limited screen time, but for one of our kids, even limited screen time was a problem. They were only allowed 20 minutes per day, but that 20 minutes became the focus on their day. Everything hinged around it. We got asked for it constantly and when time limit was up, there were tantrums. So for a while we scrapped technology time altogether. One of my other kids could take it or leave it, and didn’t react negatively when screen time was over.
Now we’re at the stage where we have a tween and a teen who are wanting to keep in touch with their friends and are asking for social media.
Our Six Guidelines For Managing Our Kids and Technology
I can’t – and won’t – tell you what you “should” do. Every family is different and has different needs and challenges. Every kid is unique and responds to technology differently.
Like most things in life, I sit in the middle ground of the issue with kids and technology. We don’t try to remove technology completely (even in those early years), but we also don’t give kids free rein with it. We didn’t start parenting with a list of rules – we had the simple objective to minimise technology use and dependence.
The following six guidelines are what have evolved over the years through trial and error.
1. We never use technology as a first resort
Whether it’s waiting at the doctors, waiting for a meal at a restaurant, or road tripping, we’ve never given the kids technology immediately. Yes, even when the kids – including the boy – were toddlers, they were not given a device to keep them calm while waiting for appointments. If the waiting went long (for like an hour), and I could tell they’d hit their capacity to contain themselves, then (and only then) would I hand them my phone.
When the girls were young we had to regularly do a four hour road trip. The rule was they couldn’t watch a DVD until we were halfway into our trip. This taught them to wait, and look out the window and enjoy the scenery. Once they got older and could read, we ditched the DVD player altogether.
As a result, our kids have been able to do things like sit through a funeral at the age of four. Even on our most recent road trip, the tween and teen were playing word games with me in the car rather than looking at devices. We talk during car trips and have fun. The girls call car trips our “family therapy” time.
2. We always have boundaries
Even with TV, there have always been limits. There is never endless technology access. Currently, our four year old son has access to the family tablet once a day. It’s set up so that it logs him out after half an hour. He kicked up a fuss the first couple of times, but now he accepts the limits. He also has to ask before having his 30 minutes. When he asks, I usually respond with something like, “Sure, once you’ve put your clothes away”. He happily runs off to do the task so he can have his tablet time.
We’ve found that it’s better to have strong limits that you can increase as time or behaviour permits, rather than give them blanket access to technology, and then wonder why they fly into a rage when you cut their access back. When they ask for more time, sometimes we give it to them. Or we’ll say, “Go play outside now and later this afternoon you can have some more time”.
We also have limitations on devices so that apps can’t be installed without our permission, and websites can’t be viewed without our approval.
3. We delayed having personal devices
You’re 13? How nice for you. In our family that doesn’t mean you are suddenly given a phone. We usually have a spare family phone that can be used when needed, and for years we only had a family tablet. The kids did not have their own devices for a long time.
As it happens, our oldest did get a phone when she was 13. But it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. In fact, six months before she turned 13, we were pretty set on her not having one. But she proved herself responsible enough, so we allowed her to buy her own phone when she turned 13. She used her birthday money and her savings. She also signed a contract about acceptable use and conditions.
Additionally, there are still boundaries even with her own device. The phone is limited to one hour of use per day (with the exception of her music access). It locks her out at 8.30pm and doesn’t allow her back in until 8.30am. We can give her extra time if and when we like. If she’s grounded she loses her phone for a period of time.
We allowed our 11 year old to buy her own tablet when she’d saved up for it. She has the same kind of limited access.
4. We continue to keep them off social media
This is the hardest one to stick with. We get subjected to a lot of begging and pleading, and then outbursts.
Yes, we want them to be able to contact their friends – their real friends. And we also want to protect them from the mean kids. They get enough exposure to that at school, and we want home to be a safe haven away from that. I’m still navigating this issue to be honest, and I will most likely adjust our tactics by the time we get to our second and third child (like most parents do!). But every time I hear horror stories about social media bullying and exposure to inappropriate content within our kids’ peer groups, it cements our resolve to stick to our guns.
At this point in time, none of our kids have a social media account – well, technically. We have utilised Messenger for Kids, and our 13 year old has Messenger on her phone – but not the Facebook app.
5. We always talk to our kids and we know that we can’t control everything
We know the limits and restrictions we’ve put in place aren’t iron-clad. Kids can get around things. There are things we haven’t thought about, and there are new challenges regularly. Which is why we always talk to the kids about why we have limits in place and what dangers are out there (age appropriately, of course). We encourage them to tell us if they see something strange, or someone they don’t know messages them, or someone sends them something dodgy.
As they grow up, we have been slowly loosening the limits. They need to learn to exercise self-control, to self-regulate their own use, and how to handle different situations. Our aim is for them to do that in a way that is as safe as possible while they have us around to support them and guide them through it.
6. Recognising there are seasons and we don’t live in an ideal world
We don’t always stick to our rules. There are times when the kids are given a lot more screen time than we’d like. These are usually times when we – the parents – are struggling. Like when we have a big work load, we’re unwell, or we’re simply exhausted. Then you might find that the TV and devices are more accessible to the kids, just to get us through (like during lockdown!). Sometimes we just gotta do what we can to survive.
We accept that, and we get back on the game plan when we can. The kids will fuss again for a bit, but they get over it quickly enough.
Yes, following these – or any – guidelines can be hard work. But we’ve figured a bit of hard work earlier is worth the long term benefits. A bit of pain now saves greater pain later. It’s a choice. There’s always pain at some stage of parenting.
We aren’t perfect parents, and we don’t have perfect kids. But we know that the principles we have (mostly) followed have helped create harmony at home, and have contributed to having kids who are nice to be around – both at home, and outside the home. Our children are generally creative, resourceful, manageable, helpful, respectful, and calm, and we are genuinely proud of them.
Before I go, there’s just one other thing I want to point out: You can be a slave to rules about technology use, just as much as you can be a slave to technology itself. When you have too many rules, you create too much work for yourself, and then it all gets too hard and you abandon them altogether. Whatever you do, keep it as simple as possible – for everyone’s sake 🙂