A holistic child psychologist’s approach to being a good parent in the unchartered territory of the digital age
While every generation of parents complains they have it harder than the ones before, there is no doubt that parenting in the digital age brings about more and different challenges than those faced by our parents, grandparents, or anyone before.
GenX or Millennials, we are the first generation of moms and dads raising children who have had access to digital devices since birth. According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 1970, children began to regularly watch TV at four years of age, whereas today, children begin interacting with digital media at four months of age.
For our children, social media, smartphones, the internet, computers in school, and devices everywhere, “IoT”, are the norm. While digital devices certainly have made some things easier, the reality is that they have created a whole new world of challenges and issues for us to navigate while raising our children. And all of this is happening at the same time we are figuring out how to be healthy adults in a digital age too!
It’s not just children who struggle with healthy boundaries when it comes to digital devices. We adults also struggle with how to incorporate technology into our lives in a healthy way. Many parents at my clinic have acknowledged just how absorbed they are in their devices and digital media to the exclusion of other things; and they wonder how on earth they can help their children learn healthy habits when they themselves are struggling to figure it all out.
We are all in this together, trying to figure out how to benefit from the good things technology brings into our lives while minimizing the negative impacts. The good news is that there are several simple things we can do to make parenting in the digital era easier and more effective for us and for our children.
Be aware of your own device use
Most parents are not even aware of how often they are using their devices, and how this may be impacting their children and their parenting. Start by paying close attention to when and where you are using devices, and how much time you are spending on them. There are specific apps and features on some devices that allow you to see a summary of your use over the course of the day or week.
Most parents I work with are alarmed to see the reality of how much time they are spending on digital media throughout the day. Notice how often you use your devices around your children, and whether you are frequently splitting your attention between them and your screen. Having a better understanding of your own device use patterns allows you to make any changes that may be needed to align with the kind of parent you want to be.
Any parental control or digital wellbeing software you are comfortable with can help. I often recommend Qustodio because it makes it easy to see time spent on various devices, so you can see exactly what you have been up to on one device and what your children have been up to on others.
Model healthy device use
Nothing we tell our children makes a greater impact on them than what they see us do. This is absolutely true for technology! What we model for them in terms of our own device use makes a much bigger difference than the rules we set or the things we say. If we want our children to have device-free meals then we need to put our devices away before coming to the dinner table.
Put your devices down. Look your children in the eye. And listen attentively. This models important social and relational skills for them as well. When we model spending time on non-tech activities, it helps them do the same. The bottom line is that as parents we need to be the model of the behaviors we want our children to exhibit in relation to their devices and media.
Prioritize other activities before electronics
Helping children prioritize their daily activities has always been a parents’ role, but it can be more challenging when children prefer to prioritize screen time over other activities. One simple way to manage this is to require that children spend time on other tasks or activities before using devices.
Examples of things they need to do before using electronics could include: getting themselves ready in the mornings, doing homework, completing chores, engaging in physical activity, reading a book, or doing another non-electronics activity they enjoy. Depending on the age of your child, you can talk with them about tasks and activities that you and they feel are important to prioritize, and then create rules around how and when those things get done before accessing devices.
Spend time together doing device-free activities
Strengthen your relationship and model the importance of doing things with others in real-life by engaging in device-free activities on a regular basis. Device-free meals are a great place to start, as they allow family members to focus on each other, eating and talking more fully without digital distractions.
Some other ways I’ve seen families do this is to include a weekly game night, read a book together each evening, prepare a meal together, build with Legos, go to the nail salon, and many more. You can do things together that need to get done anyway, like laundry or cooking, as well as things your child enjoys doing such as making crafts or riding bikes. The goal is to spend some time together on a regular basis without devices, even for brief periods of time.
Don’t worry if your child gets upset about the limits you set
Many parents become distressed when their children are upset, and this can certainly be an issue when attempting to set limits around electronics. It’s important for parents to remember that children may have a variety of uncomfortable emotions around limits, and it is okay for them to feel this way.
Our job as parents is to set appropriate expectations and teach our children healthy boundaries – even when they don’t like it. Setting appropriate healthy limits around when devices are used, how long they are used, and what content is consumed is a parenting requirement in the digital age.
Our children may not always be happy about it, just as they aren’t always happy with us requiring that they shower regularly, take out the trash, or do their homework! Rest assured that even if they are upset at the moment, setting boundaries is one of the ways we let children know we care about them and want the best for them. Keep talking about the benefits and drawbacks of digital device use, enforcing appropriate limits, and modeling your own healthy device habits – even if they are grumpy about it. Trust me when I say that your children know you are doing this for their own good – even if they don’t act like it at the time.
Parenting in the digital age has unique benefits and challenges that no prior generation of parents has faced before. Taking even small steps toward healthier device use today will yield benefits for your children now and into the future.