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How and When to Limit Kids' Tech Use

How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use

No one cares more than you do about your child’s happiness and success. In this digital age, that means helping them not only in the real world but also in the always-on virtual one. Teach your kids how to use technology in a healthy way and help them develop the skills and habits they’ll need to be good digital citizens.

From 2-year-olds who seem to understand the iPad better than you do to teenagers who need some (but not too much) freedom, we’ll show you how to make technology work for your family at every stage of the journey.

Top 3 Things to Remember

A few basic tips for parents will help you set ground rules and keep the peace when it comes to technology at home.

How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use

1. Strive for balance.

Technology is here to stay, and the world is only getting more and more digital. That’s a good thing in many ways. Technology has tools that help kids of all ages learn in a fun and interesting ways, show their creativity, and stay in touch with others. Children who know how to use technology will also be better prepared for a job market where digital skills will be the norm.

At the same time, parents worry that their kids will see inappropriate things online, that too much screen time will hurt their health, and that their kids will become too dependent on technology.

As with most things, the best way to deal with these new problems is in a balanced way. Adam Alter, a social psychologist and author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” says that the most important thing is to find a way to have a healthy relationship with technology.

Dr. Alter compares it to trying to eat a healthy diet: “Older kids understand balance intuitively. They know it’s important to eat healthy foods along with candy and dessert, and the same is true of the “empty calories” that come from spending too much time passively staring at screens. There’s a time for screens, but not at the expense of time for physical activity and connecting with real people in real-time.”

As you try to find this delicate balance, here are some things to keep in mind:

There’s no one way to be successful, but when you see it, you’ll know it. The balance will look different for your family than it will for your neighbor’s family because every family is different and has different parenting styles and values. In general, though, you’ve probably found balance if your family can enjoy the benefits of technology without feeling too many of its negative effects, and you’re comfortable with how your kids use it.

Keep an eye out for signs of inappropriate use of technology. Jon Lasser, a psychologist and co-author of “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World,” says:

  • When kids don’t have access to technology, they say they’re bored or unhappy.
  • Setting limits on screen time can lead to tantrums or strong resistance.
  • Screen time makes it hard to sleep, do well in school, and talk to people face-to-face.

Get ready to talk about this again and again. As your kids get older, they will become more interested in technology. Also, it’s hard to say what the digital world will be like in just a few years. Your perception of what constitutes good and bad technology use will evolve over time. Fun times are ahead!

Here are some ways to judge the quality of your kids’ online interactions, which you should do often:

  • Are they seeing things that are appropriate for their age?
  • Are the apps they use interactive and make them think, or do they just sit there and do nothing? Not all time spent on screen is the same. Going back to the food example, 100 calories from a doughnut are not the same as 100 calories from a salad. Similarly, an hour spent watching YouTube videos is not the same as an hour spent in a digital art program.
  • Do your older kids’ social media and other online accounts have privacy settings that limit what strangers can see and who can contact them?

2. Set a good example.

Kids and adults are both drawn to technology because of its strong pull. We check our phones every hour, stay up late working or surfing the web on our laptops, binge-watch our favorite shows, and even do dangerous things like “distracted walking.” Children are likely to not only copy our behavior but also feel like they have to compete with devices for our attention. In one study, almost half of the parents said that technology got in the way of their time with their child three or more times a day.

Google and Apple are starting to do something about the growing worry that technology is taking over our lives by adding new features to phones like time limits for certain apps (for Android) and statistics on how much time is spent on devices (for iOS). Digital tools can help us stop using our devices too much, but the best way to teach children the important skill of unplugging is to practice and show them how to do it.

Set boundaries for work time and family time. A few key times to stay unplugged include:

  • when picking up or dropping children at school, as this is a transitional time for them
  • After coming home from work, that’s time to reconnect with your family
  • during meals, including when dining out
  • during outings like trips to the park or zoo, or vacations when the focus is on family time

Know when you’re really busy and need to be plugged in and when you don’t. Often, it feels like there’s a work or social emergency and you have to take that call, respond to a message, or check your email — but when you really think about it, it could wait until after you’ve finished that movie or game with your child.

Use media the way you want your children to: Follow common sense rules around tech like never texting while driving and avoiding oversharing on social media. 

By practicing what you preach instead of the hypocritical “do as I say not what I do” approach, you emulate the habits you want your children to pick up and show them that there are times for using technology and times when we should be present in the real world.

3. Make Tech a Family Affair

Your family likely discusses important decisions that affect the group day-to-day, such as who’s responsible for doing the dishes and where you should go for your next vacation. Technology use should take the same type of planning, so everyone’s on board with the same expectations.

Set rules as a family. When you set limits with children, Dr. Lasser says, kids can start learning how to self-regulate and know when screen time is interfering too much with the rest of their lives. As a bonus, he adds: “Kids are also less likely to balk at limits if they have a role in creating and establishing them.” You can create a  family media use plan at the American Academy of Pediatrics website. 

  • Be involved with your child’s tech experiences. Playing or watching alongside children offers several benefits. You’ll be able to vet the content they are accessing, the child will learn more from the activity through your interaction, and you’ll bond through the shared experience. If your children seem to be light years ahead in tech acumen compared with you, let them teach you — it’s a confidence booster for them and important for you to keep up with the new experiences they’re having. This might mean sitting through dizzying Minecraft builds, Fortnite games, or learning teen-speak, but at least you’ll experience the virtual world together.
  • Tailor your approach to each child. As with other areas of parenting, what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another, depending on their ages, personalities, and needs. Your 10-year-old might be more careful about not playing inappropriate games or keeping your computer free of viruses than your 12-year-old. Your 12-year-old might not want a phone even though her friends all have one.
  • Age ranges aren’t hard guidelines (including the ones in this guide). Instead, consider them a general roadmap for mentoring your children from an introduction to technology to making their own decisions about how to use it wisely.

Toddlers and Preschoolers (2-5 Years)

Play, watch and browse together while carving out more tech-free time.

Once your child is running about and eager to learn all the things, it’ll be hard to keep electronic devices away. A survey by Erikson Institute found that an overwhelming 85 percent of parents allow their children under age 6 to use technology at home and 86 percent of parents surveyed said they found benefits for their young children’s tech usage, including literacy, school readiness, and school success.  While there are more apps and gadgets than ever before explicitly designed for toddlers, you’ll still want to make tech a small slice of their larger learning and activities pie.

Make Tech Time Bonding Time

At this age, children are learning prosocial behavior: sharing, helping, donating, and benefiting other people. It’s the age when kids learn to give and take. Technology can help with this developmental stage when you co-play with them, taking turns and exploring a game or digital book, or video together. Now (and, honestly, at every other age), children want your undivided attention — even when their focus seems to be mostly directed at a screen.


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