As social media continues to fill space in our lives and culture, more and more parents are asking about the “specific” rules of engagement for their children. The questions come from places of concern and uncertainty: How much screen time should my children have? When do I buy them a device of their own? At what age can I leave them alone with that device? Should we just set up accounts and “follow” them all over the Internet? The viewpoints range over the exact answers and how to apply them. In my personal opinion, we are asking the wrong questions; to add a bit of clarity of to the “how to’s” of digital use, let’s consider some old school guidelines and some basic common sense. To keep things simple I will revert to some old school rules on the topic so enjoy the nostalgia!
Many moons ago we as parents had common rules to govern our neighborhoods. While we all had our own individual families with our dynamics, hobbies, places of worship, etc, there were also broader guidelines and standards we adhered to as a community. We had safety tools like Block Parents, and simple concepts like “when the streetlamps come on, it’s time for everyone to get their butts home.” Many of us did not have watches, let alone phones in our pockets, so parents used this rule to govern our kids as a collective. Parents also knew that very little good came after dark and we had played enough for the day. Time to engage with the family, do homework and otherwise prepare for bed. Common sense right?
The same rule applies to “when enough is enough” with the phone. Your child’s peer group is attached to the device, and yes parents, very little good still comes after dark. At a certain point of the evening, it is generally a good guide to get the phone into your possession. Hand them a book, get them settled for bed, talk to them. Put your phone down and engage with your kids. Your children have had hours to engage with a peer group, stare in an isolated space, take in inappropriate contact, pelt their little brains and spirits with junk food before they really feel like crap. Kids, teens and yes, you the adult, need to unplug from the device. In our desire to be “hyper-connected” we have thrown out conventional wisdom. Let the streetlight be your guide.
Do you send your 8-year-old to the store by themselves to buy your booze and cigarettes? That question sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But, not that long ago it was an everyday occurrence. I remember when my father used to send my 6-year-old self to the 7-11 to buy his cigarettes. I walked the mile to the store with my older sisters. We did not think anything of it because back then there were no age limits for certain products. We also did not know all the dangers, so many parents didn’t even think about it twice. Once we got educated, the behaviors disappeared, and today would be considered unthinkable. The same goes for today’s 'booze and cigarettes;' our devices. These machines carry a lot of power. They are highly addictive, very informative and sometimes instrumental. They are packed with all sorts of impressive abilities. They can teach our children many things, and we all have benefited from the inventions. However, I would argue we have gone overboard in our love affair. We must take a pause and thoroughly educate ourselves on the usefulness, but also realize and respect how much time they can take up.
Just like cigarettes and drugs, there came a time when we all realized the impacts of these substances. The same state of mind must apply to devices. When the appropriate age is, well, that is a decision we all must make as a parents. When we send our children to camps, schools, pick doctors, cook them food, introduce them to movies, and all things in between, we make informed decisions. Technology must be firmly in the camp of “substances that may or may not be good for my child.” Please do not drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid that tells us our kids will be “so far behind” unless they are introduced to technology early. Your child will learn and become the beautiful, radical genius you want them to be despite balancing their technology usage. What children cannot live without is Love. A device will never replace what they truly need from you.
Children need to be nurtured in a loving, present environment of their family in the first few years of their life more than they need anything else. I would argue that their “success” rate as an adult largely depends on how much love and acceptance they receive in these tender years. This is when children learn security, confidence, and sense of self. Do not defer this job to a magical App or device. It is in these first years children will learn that who they are is enough and that ANYTHING they want to be in the world can be grown in that magical garden of love.
Ok parents, this one will sting...deep breath. We as digital age parents have got to get it together! I am ringing the Defcon 5 alarm on this one. Let’s put away all our ego and helicopter tendencies; our “my child is star” mantra, my child is “perfect” mantra. Children in the digital age will make mistakes. Horrific mistakes, mistakes they wish they could take back. Our children all have the capacity in these environments to do things they deeply regret. The technical engineering of these spaces, the current “acceptable” forms of behavior have created toxic and socially acceptable negative spaces. Our children, all of them, have the capacity to be both bully and victim.
There was a time when parents were on the same team, having each other’s backs. Mothers united, outsmarted children to get the “truth” out of them. We cleverly found ways to communicate so we could understand our children for what they really were: HUMAN. Children do not stop developing their emotional intelligence until well past their 18th birthday, yet we have given them very adult communication tools and spaces. They do not have the full capacity to understand all their decisions. We gasp with shock and awe that kids are doing these things to each other. Most boys are asking for nudes; many girls are sending them. Girls are wanting to be hypersexual, and boys are expecting it. Cliques and bullying are rampant and “shunning” is not uncommon. These things are happening to ALL our kids. No exception. Your denial of the problem is not helping.
Parents, we and our children are all in it together, and can get back to some simple rules of engagement: Do not say anything at all if you cannot be kind. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. On or Offline. Let’s raise our children as a village. Let’s all take our rose colored glasses off and accept our children are going to make mistakes. Do not shoot the messenger when someone tells you something about yours. Work together. Be a friend to your fellow parent and for heaven’s sake recognize that we ALL need each other. Digital is a warzone of complexity, and the more we work together, the better chance we all have at teaching our children love and acceptance and with that a healthy relationship with everything they deal with, including technology.