How to Make Small Changes to Tame the Technology Monster

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At Minno, we know that today’s parents are trailblazers for parenting kids in a digital age. No one has ever done this before and it can be hard to know how to do it well. We are committed to partner with you as you navigate life with kids and technology. As you look toward Christmas—a time when kids are begging for devices and may have a little extra time on their hands to get lost on them—we’re bringing you one of the most balanced expert voices on the subject, Sissy Goff, to share strategies but most importantly, empathy for parents. Check back here throughout the month as Sissy addresses statistics, boundaries, cell-phone contracts, and more.

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None of us would allow our eight-year-old to walk into an adult bookstore. But, in effect, that’s what we’re doing when we allow kids to use technology without any type of monitoring. The internet can be a dangerous place. And surprisingly, 60% of parents do not supervise their child’s technology usage.11 

I recently met with a mom who had lost her husband. She had three children, and an elementary-aged daughter who had just looked at pornography for the first time. “I know I’m supposed to have all of this stuff on the computer so I know what they’re doing. I honestly just haven’t had the energy, and I thought she was young enough that we were safe.”

The reality is absolutely concerning, but I understand . . . the struggle is real.

You are the gatekeeper.

No matter what your situation is as a parent, you are probably exhausted. All parents are, in different seasons. But your child is not. He or she is curious and quick and likely already more adept at using technology than you are. And, think about it . . . What do you do with every question about which you might be wondering? You Google it. If you were a child, wouldn’t you prefer to Google what a body part is supposed to look like than to have an awkward conversation with your parent?

When it comes to technology, you need to be the gatekeeper for your child. Your child—yes, even your teenager—needs parental guidance. 

A few gatekeeping ideas:

  • If your child gets the privilege of using technology, you get to set the boundaries. Years ago, I taught my first parenting class on technology. It was when Facebook was first becoming a thing. (Now they leave Facebook to us “old people” and have moved on to Snapchat and Instagram. By the time you read this, they’ll have likely moved on to something else.) I was telling these parents that, as their child first starts using social media, they need to watch them closely. In fact, they need to more than “friend” their child in the beginning—they need to have their child’s password (an idea I still advocate, no matter what social media platform your child is using). As their friend, you can’t check their incoming and outgoing private messages, which is sometimes where the trouble occurs. A mom spoke up from the corner of the room and said, “There’s no way my son will give me his password. He won’t even accept my friend request.”  Now, her problem was clearly bigger than just technology use in her home. It was a respect and authority issue at the deepest level. Kids can and will try to argue this point, especially if they paid or helped pay for their phone or gadget. Don’t be dissuaded. You are still the gatekeeper, even if they’ve paid for all or a portion of their device. Of course, with smaller children, you probably aren’t even thinking about social media just yet. But even small children without social media need guidance. They need you to preview what they watch and play. They need time limits. Remember: If it’s under your roof, you ultimately are in control. 
  • You have to be ahead of the game. Before you allow your child to download an app, download it yourself first. Play it and determine if it has a social media component. Many games and apps do, but parents don’t notice until it’s too late—because the interactive portion is placed at the very bottom of the page. Before you allow your kids to watch a show, preview it. Don’t rely on the age recommendations given. Chances are the creator of the app or show doesn’t share your values.
  • Supervise video chatting. If your child is talking to someone else via Skype or Facetime or some other video platform, have them chat in a central location in your home. Because chatting is not recorded, it can be a place where kids feel freer to say or do things they wouldn’t if they knew their parents were watching. You can monitor less as they get older, but young ones should always be supervised unless they’re chatting with a grandparent or other trusted adult.
  • Link your email to their iTunes or Google account. You want to be aware of what apps they’re downloading. If their account is set up under your email address, you will be able to check on what they’ve installed on their devices. Many smartphones and tablets also have a setting that disables the user’s ability to delete apps. You want to turn this setting on, so your child can’t download an app and then delete it right before they hand their phone to you. (Can you tell I’ve heard that story a time or two in my office?)
  • Put filters and monitoring systems on your computers and gadgets, including yours if you allow them to use it. Filters prevent inappropriate content from reaching them. Monitoring systems keep you informed as to what they are doing and communicating online and via text. 

Some of our favorite resources include:   

You can also check out the American Academy of Pediatrics site to create a specialized media plan for your family.

Thankfully, these sites and other great ones offer help in keeping our kids protected. You want to do your own research to make sure the software you choose is right for your family and the devices and social media your kids use. 

Start small.

Every time we speak to parents about technology, someone asks the question: “When should I let my child have _________?”  In other words, what’s the magic age? When will he be old enough to be responsible? When will she be mature enough to make good choices? Unfortunately, there is no magic age. But, there are some guidelines that we and the good folks at the American Academy of Pediatrics would strongly suggest.

When? Our answer to that question is to parent in community. You want a group of like-minded parents walking this road with you. You can decide together when you’re going to let your kids have their first email account, or their first cell phone, or Instagram account, or whatever the shiny new penny of the day is. That way, when your child says, “All the other kids have ________! (which your child will say at some point), you can say, “That’s funny, because I know the Smith’s and the Johnson’s or (whomever your home team is) don’t have those yet either.”  Parenting in community gives you automatic back up. 

When considering how and when to introduce technology with your kids, you don’t want your child to be the first and you don’t want them to be the last.

If they’re the first, they’ll often be perceived as the frontrunner. Others will see them as on the cutting edge. You don’t want your child to be on the cutting edge of growing up. It’s too risky and the cutting edge gets scarier as they get older. 

But if they’re the last to have all things technology, they’ll often be the ones who rebel. They’ll sneak around or “borrow” a friend’s device. Or they’ll be left behind. The reality is that for tweens and teens, technology and social media have become the way they communicate. There is no fighting that. You can let your child be second or even next to last, rather than the very last.  I’ve also seen parents who choose one item to delay. I’ve seen plenty of parents who don’t let their kids have smartphones till 16, with the message that a phone is a convenience for the parent, not the child. Or we have parents who hold off on Snapchat or some other hot ticket item. But, if you hold off on all things technology, your child will often find their way to it without your knowledge—and rebel. Plus, the goal of taming the technology monster is to teach them responsible technology use while they’re under your roof.

Some simple boundaries to put into place:

  • Set time limits. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its guidelines. Now, they say one hour for kids under the age of 6, and they don’t give any guidelines past that age, other than “place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.”12 Basically, they’re saying it’s up to the parent’s guidance and discretion. However, the brain development of children did not magically change in the year 2016. They adjusted their numbers knowing the prevalence and sometimes helpfulness of technology today. Parents still need to be good guides. Depending on your family dynamics, the ages of your kids, and other factors, you will need to determine screen-time limits for your family, enforce them, and adjust them as needed.  It’s easy to allow kids access to screens whenever and for however long they want. Especially if they are watching/using educational content. But even the best learning apps and shows need limits. Make sure you balance their screen time with outdoor activity, creativity, and human connection.
  • Require 10 minutes of rest for every 90 minutes of tech. Researchers say children need 10 minutes of rest for every 90 minutes of technology use.12  It helps their brain development and calms the overactivity of the brain that can develop using screens. 
  • Stop using technology 30 to 60 minutes before bed. We’ve all read the data on technology-related sleep disturbances. I taught a technology class where one teenager said she had to have her iPad by her bed because it was how she read her Bible.  I tried to explain to her that there had been beautiful, leather-bound, hardback, and even paperback versions of the Bible that had been around for quite some time and work just as well.
  • Have screen-free zones in your home, including mealtime. We have cell phone baskets in our counseling offices at Daystar. You can have them in your dining room, or at the kitchen table. But, have some space where everyone collectively unplugs for the purpose of connection.
  • Keep computers in common spaces. For as long as possible, keep the computer your child uses in a room you frequent. It’s good accountability for them to know that you regularly enter the space where they’re using technology.
  • Have a central plug-in station in your bedroom. Kids really don’t need their gadgets in their rooms after bedtime. I’ve heard story after story of teenagers who send inappropriate texts and pictures after everyone in the house has gone to bed. They need to plug them in somewhere centrally located, preferably in a room where you’ll notice if they sneak them out. (Can you tell I’ve heard that one before, too? Hallways and kitchens are all too accessible.)
  • Take technology sabbaths together. We know plenty of families who have screen-free Sundays, or weekends, or even spring breaks together.  If the idea of a technology sabbath causes you to perspire just a bit, it might be time to think about your own technology use.
  • Give them more freedom as they earn it. A parenting class on technology is challenging to teach. Parents look panicked the entire time I’m speaking on the subject. Therefore, I try to make it as warm and fun as possible, which is not easy. I tell stories and show funny videos, and smile a lot. I was teaching one such class at a church not too long ago when the time came for Q&A at the end. A man in the back of the room raised his hand. I was slightly concerned, having noticed this man at different points during the class. I was highly aware that he was more than disgruntled with my philosophy on technology. When he got the microphone, he loudly said, “I have raised six children, and I just want to say—technology is NOT a child’s God-given right. When we were raising my oldest son, it wasn’t until we were driving him to his high school graduation that we let him get on the internet for the first time on his phone. It was also the first time we let him send someone else a picture from that phone.”  He stopped for a long, dramatic pause and then said, “If your child is on the internet, go home and shut it down!”  And just in case someone missed his quite un-missable point, he shouted it—not once, but twice more, “IF YOUR CHILD IS ON THE INTERNET, GO HOME AND SHUT IT DOWN!!!!”  All I could think to do was to say, “Why don’t I close us in prayer?” and bow my head. But my real thought was . . . That 18-year-old boy. I cannot imagine him going from no freedom at all to 3 months later, sitting in his college dorm room with every freedom in the world.

We want kids to learn responsible technology use while they’re living with responsible adults. As in all things, we want to let the rope out gradually, giving them more freedom as they earn it. We start small, and let the rope out slowly . . . pulling it back in, not if, but when they mess up. Because they most likely will. And, as we’re pulling in and letting that rope out, we want to give them clear guidelines.

Content is taken from Taming the Technology Monster by Sissy Goff.

Stay connected to Minno Life for more posts from Sissy Goff, M.Ed., LPC-MHSP, and Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries about our kids and technology.

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11AAP Recommendations for Children’s Media Use

12American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. (October 21, 2016). American Academy of Pediatrics