By Courtney Layson, LPC
Parents’ Guide to Curbing the Technology Craze
Last night I watched a family at Amerigo Italian Restaurant entertain their young children with an iPad while the adults enjoyed dinner and conversation. Even though the kids were probably around 3 and 5 years old, they looked like little tech wizards navigating apps and games with ease.
Listen, as a working mom with three small children of my own, I make it a point to never judge the parenting decisions of other people. It’s difficult to juggle the tasks and demands of daily life while also raising people who will one day run the world. Sometimes technology can be like a magic wand that soothes the tempers of demanding kids from toddler to teen. I won’t blame anyone for calling in the necessary reinforcements every now and then.
However, as a licensed therapist, I would be lying if I said I don’t have some concerns about our current use of technology and how it’s impacting the development of the next generation. And when it comes to tech talk, there are some basic questions that I hear over and over again as parents are learning to navigate uncharted technological waters.
1. When should I introduce technology to my kids?
Technology has permanently changed our world and I don’t see much use in fighting it. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Now, I’m not advocating for blind acceptance here, but technology in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. And I think we can actually use technology for good.
Most of us won’t even have to ask when to introduce technology to our kids because they are growing up in a world that has always had it. You and I can clearly remember when we got our first computer or email address. We remember a life that existed before cell phones. But our kids don’t even know a world like that is possible. Because of this, I recommend allowing access to technology from a very young age.
However, it’s never healthy for technology to replace parenting. Smartphones, iPads, and television are all good things but were never intended to be used as a babysitter. So, I recommend allowing kids to explore technology from the beginning, but make sure this is supervised and done in the context of the parent-child relationship.
2. When do we say yes to smartphones/iPads?
Age is always an issue when it comes to technology. As parents, we want to know what magical number will make it safe for our kids to use the computer or smartphone. Unfortunately, the appropriate age for kids to begin using more advanced forms of technology is as different as each child.
For example, parents of a firstborn may wait until their child starts driving to introduce a personal smartphone. However, these same parents may decide after this experience to allow their other kids to use phones at an earlier age such as middle school. At the same time, a single parent may decide that an elementary-aged child could benefit from a personal phone in case of emergency.
There’s really no right answer on this, but again, it is critical for parents to understand their own kids. Cognitive ability, emotional intelligence, and basic maturity are all factors that should be considered before committing to more advanced forms of technology. Remember, it is okay to say no. No doesn’t mean never. It simply means not yet.
Kids don’t physically grow at the same pace, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they emotionally develop at different times and on different schedules. If your child isn’t at an emotional level to handle the responsibility of advanced technology, then they probably don’t need to have independent access to a smartphone, iPad, or laptop computer.
3. Should I monitor what my kids are doing on their smartphone or through social media? How do I monitor that information?
Parents seem to constantly be at a crossroads about how much they need to know about their child’s peer-to-peer communication via text or social media. I sometimes hear parents compare reading their child’s text messages to reading their personal diary.
I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with this comparison. I encourage parents to let their kids know up front that their text messages and online communications will be monitored regularly as long as the child is a minor—or as long as parents are needed to pay the phone bill!
And this doesn’t need to be communicated in a confrontational way to kids and teens. We’re not trying to catch our kids and we don’t need to assume they’re being dishonest or disobedient. But we do want to be wise about the amount of freedom we’re allowing them to practice. Sometimes adjustments need to be made during the learning process. Appropriate monitoring of technology allows us to do that with discretion and wisdom.
Parenting is the hardest job in the world. I know that I’m always looking for ways to protect my kids and save time doing it! The good news is that several companies offer software or apps that monitor personal computers and smartphones. (You can find dozens of recommendations with a quick Google search.)
Security for phones and computers is great, but it absolutely cannot replace the need for good old-fashioned parenting. Do not simply install monitoring software on your child’s phone and walk away. We must be in the habit of talking with our kids about their friends and activities and following up with accountability when we see something that concerns us. This is the hard stuff of life, but there’s really no way around it. No monitoring device can take the place of a parent’s intuition. No smartphone app can replace human relationship.
4. What do I do if my child is using technology inappropriately?
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of junk on the Internet that we don’t want our kids exposed to. Parents need to be aware of the dangers related to online pornography, sexting, bullying, and social media. But I cannot stress enough that our job is to be a parent, not a police officer. We do not need to assume that we are raising tiny criminals. Our kids are just human—nothing more, nothing less.
Our kids are going to mess up. They will! They are going to mess up just like we did. And our job as parents is to guide them back on the path of health and wholeness. We do not need to shame them into obeying us. We do not need to manipulate and control them out of our own fear. Give them the tools to make wise decisions, but allow them the freedom to fail. Then, support them as they try again.
Remember, we need grace every day and we’re the adults. Now imagine how much more grace will our kids need while they’re learning! And, if you see repeated patterns of inappropriate tech use, even in the face of appropriate monitoring and parenting, it may be time to seek the help of a professional.
Parenting is hard no matter the child and no matter the age or stage of development. And the rapid advances in technology have changed some of the details of raising kids. But the good news is that the basics of parenting have stayed the same. Time, relationship, correction, and love have been effective parenting techniques for centuries, and they will continue to be even in the face of technology.
Courtney Gray Layson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a staff member in the Restoration Ministry of Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson.