Parents had enough to worry about before their children could bully each other online, meet dangerous strangers without leaving the house, and switch between tasks at a rapid-fire pace. Some parents have even questioned whether their children will ever be able to concentrate.
In a world where, according to one survey, 81% of toddlers have an online presence by the time they are two, most parents are still confused about how to best manage their children’s relationship with technology.
Author Scott Steinberg attempts to answer their questions in a new series of high-tech parenting books called The Modern Parent’s Guide. The first volume, Kids and Video Games, went online as a free download this week. Internet, Web and Online Safety; Facebook and Social Networks; Smartphones and Apps; and Digital Music, Movies and Entertainment will follow within the next year.
Mashable asked Steinberg how parents should shape their children’s experiences with the digital world, and about the technology rules he uses in his home.
Q&A With Author Scott Steinberg
How has technology changed parenting?
In virtually every way imaginable, given that technology has permeated nearly every facet of kids’ and adults’ everyday lives, from the personal to professional and social.
Consider that kids aged two to five are better able to play video games and downloaded apps than tie their shoelaces or ride a bike. The iPhone, iPod touch and iPad now top holiday wish lists of children aged six to 12. And tots as young as two are being given faux plastic cellphones and tablets. (Even Mattel and Hasbro’s toy lines are increasingly giving way to app-enabled action figures and Barbie dolls with built-in digital cameras.)
This introduces a fundamental paradigm shift, as modern kids are growing up in an age where technology and connected devices are both readily available second nature, and yet standardized norms and rules of behavior governing usage — as well as experienced, positive role models — are hard to come by.
Keeping kids safe online requires that we reevaluate old approaches and reequip parents and kids with an entirely new set of skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century, which changes the very fabric of family culture. Plus, of course, demands that everyone — parents, kids, teachers, government, law enforcement, etc. — do their part to shoulder the weight of this responsibility, which must be shared by all parties involved.
A recent study from Nielsen found seven out of 12 children ages 12 and under who live in tablet-owning households use the devices, and it suggests parents give their children tablets to occupy them while traveling and waiting in restaurants. Is there anything wrong with using the iPad as a babysitter?
“As a rule of thumb, high-tech devices should unequivocally not be used as babysitters, but practicality being what it is, sometimes you have to bow to reality.”
Let’s be realistic up-front: Like many modern parents, my wife and I probably wouldn’t have survived the early years if the iPad and iPhone weren’t there to buy the occasional moment’s peace and chance to enjoy dinner out once in a while, without having to juggle screaming sprouts. But using hardware and software as a substitute for actively paying attention to or spending time with kids is a bad habit that’s all too easy to get into, and one that sells children short.
Screen time should always be limited, and use of high-tech devices balanced with other healthy everyday activities. And parents should always make a point of keeping an eye on and spending time their children — a rewarding and healthy experience for all.
As a rule of thumb, high-tech devices should unequivocally not be used as babysitters, but practicality being what it is, sometimes you have to bow to reality. Once in a while, after a long day, when you desperately need to decompress or five minutes to reconnect with your spouse, your toddler’s turned into something straight out of The Exorcist, firing up Monkey Toddler Lunchbox or screening an episode of Dora the Explorer isn’t something you should feel guilty about.
A wide range of products monitor children on their mobile phones and the Internet. Where is the line between appropriate supervision and spying? Is there one?
The line is all too fine, and the decision to implement such solutions is often a point of much contention between parents and tots. Realistically, only you can decide what’s appropriate here, though it’s often advised to openly discuss with children the presence of — and your decision to implement — such solutions. Know this, though: A truly determined tot will always find a way to circumvent such restrictions, whether through software workarounds or visiting a friend’s house.
“A truly determined tot will always find a way to circumvent such restrictions, whether through software workarounds or visiting a friend’s house.”
The best defense here is a good offense: Teach kids positive computing habits, encourage them to come forward with questions surrounding negative situations or questionable content encountered online, and set a good example with your online behaviors. Build trust, foster parent-child communication and teach your kids how to make good decisions, and you’ll empower them to safely connect and interact. And know that — like any normal individual — they’ll sometimes mess up, and that, once breached, trust can take time to reestablish. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, despite safeguards and the best of intentions.
How can parents best protect their children from online threats while respecting their privacy?
Educate them regarding online safety, cybercrime, rules of online etiquette and behavior, information sharing, spending and other topics. Encourage open discussion about these subjects, and give kids the freedom to come forward and share their thoughts or any questions they might have.
Discuss and agree upon house rules regarding appropriate content and the use of high-tech devices, and the punishments that will be enforced (and terms under which they’ll be rescinded), and take care to enforce them. Take advantage of parental controls and software solutions. And beyond doing always doing your homework and researching and going hands-on with new technologies and products, set a positive example through your own words and actions.
What rules do you have in your house regarding technology use?
No more than 30 minutes to one hour of screen time a day. No accessing high-tech devices in private areas of the home, with use restricted to common gathering spots like the living room and den. No apps or video games without spending an equal amount of time devoted to other pursuits — reading, nature walks, riding bikes, etc.
Access will be given only to age-appropriate content, and all software must be approved by both parents (although occasionally dad or mom overrules here, much to the other spouse’s chagrin). Conversation will always be had — either during playtime or later afterwards, e.g. at dinner –- re: high-tech experiences and interactions, even if just to discuss the adventures and fun experience had.
And it’s the wife and kiddo’s inalienable right to pull [dad] away from the screen…or email when dinner is on the table.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter technically don’t allow users under the age of 13, but many tweens lie about their age in order to sign up anyway. As a parent, should you prevent your children from signing up for such sites, even if their friends are using them? If so, what are some alternative sites they can use?
Children and social networks are an interesting issue. Technically, terms prohibit access to those under age 13, and studies show that three in four kids who sign up can find themselves in unpleasant online situations. But plenty of positive experiences can be had on these sites as well, and wonderful, healthy relationships formed. And many kids are mature and sensible enough to make use of them in marked and meaningful ways.
There’s no single-shot answer here as a result. Every child develops and matures at a different rate, and every household deserves the right to make the decision as to when introducing social networking is appropriate. Alternatives like Google+ (which lets you limit content sharing to pre-approved circles), Everloop and Neer may present promising alternatives, however.
Adults often respond to the prevalence of sexting and cyberbullying with the idea that young people don’t realize that what they post on the Internet is public. Do you think young people have a different understanding of what it means to put something on the Internet?
No –- kids aren’t dumb. Some simply lack the maturity or benefit of experience and hindsight that adults possess that would allow them to understand the potential ramifications. Education is vital here, starting at an early age, and occurring through both home and traditional school settings. It’s up to us to teach kids and provide proactive solutions here.
That said, there’s definitely been a cultural shift. In many cases, today’s are definitely willing to be more social and put more of themselves out there for others to see. Unfortunately, not all that’s shared is positive in nature.
What is a reasonable amount of time for children to spend interacting with a screen each day?
That’s a question only parents are equipped to answer. But as a general guideline, experts recommend no more than one to two hours of screen time a day, and that it be balanced with an equal amount of time enjoying other real-world activities.
Some families actually require that screen time be earned, reinforcing to kids that technology access is a privilege, not an inalienable right. Others add or subtract time based on good behavior, or even make a game of it, letting kids earn time by doing well in school, helping out around the house or doing good deeds.
What is the biggest mistake you see parents making when it comes to technology?
“The best way to make technology a healthy and positive part of family life is actually to embrace it.”
Ignoring it or blocking its use entirely. It’s a problem that won’t go away, and trying to halt the advance of progress is like trying to turn back the ocean’s tide with a shovel and bucket.
The best way to make technology a healthy and positive part of family life is actually to embrace it, educate yourself about it and go hands-on with new devices, apps, social networks and services wherever possible. Not only does the practice allow you to make better, more informed decisions –- it also provides shared activities and interests for adults and kids to bond over, and equips you to have the healthy, open and honest dialogue that’s vital to restoring peace to the household and helping kids stay ahead of the curve.
Do you have any favorite safe, educational websites for children?
National Geographic’s website is a favorite, as are Disney and Nickelodeon’s. But oftentimes, visiting your local park or museum’s website can be highly rewarding as well. From games to activities (paper cutouts you can print, nature guides, stories, etc.), many offer a wealth of positive entertainment choices. Anything that offers educational value or encourages kids to learn about real-world subjects from math to science and nature is a plus.
Should parents be worried that constant online multitasking — many times even among multiple screens — is hurting their children’s ability to concentrate?
Yes and no. Yes, in that it potentially could train them to consume media in a manner that’s less conducive to sustaining one’s attention span, and rewire the way in which we process information. No, as it also fosters creativity, problem-solving and dynamic decision-making –- all qualities that can be of extreme benefit to children.
Moderation in everything is key. Making sure that kids enjoy other, more attention-sustaining activities that they can actively put their minds to, in addition to fly-by-the-microsecond high-tech pastimes, is crucial to maintaining balance here.
Many Silicon Valley executives send their children to a school that bans technology. If the people who make technology are removing it from their children’s curriculum, should all parents consider limiting or eliminating children’s screen time?
Eliminating screen time entirely seems a bit extreme, but yes, limiting screen time is of course a good idea. The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, parents can’t afford to ignore technology, but that doesn’t mean they have to let it rule kids’ lives either.
As a parent who works in the technology field, I’ll be the first to admit –- I’d rather children read a book, see a play, or go outdoors and enjoy sports than spend time vegetating in front of the computer or iPad. But that doesn’t mean these devices don’t have a place in schools or the home either –- they can be perfectly safe, uplifting and wonderful parts of kids’ lives if used wisely, and in conjunction with other balanced and healthy everyday activities.