We are the first generation to parent children in the technology-reliant world. Growing up, we saw technology and the internet evolve, and we learned about it as it became part of our world.
I wake up to an alarm on my iPhone. I use a timer to be sure I don’t burn the eggs for breakfast, and I check my weather app to choose my clothes. I check my email to see if there are messages I could respond to before the kids wake up and I look up the directions to my son’s doctor’s appointment. And somewhere in between I’ve probably checked Facebook.
It’s only 9:15 and I’ve clicked, swiped, and scrolled through more media (and its accompanying advertisements) than my parents would have encountered in a week at my age. Although technology has become an integral part of my life, navigating this space with my children can be tricky.
I remember the first time I felt disconnected from my son’s media experiences. We were on the floor building with blocks creating an imaginative, tall castle. This castle was especially grand, so my son suddenly said, “Let’s take a picture!” I made a pretend camera with my hands, the kind where you hold it in a rectangular fashion and push the button on the top with a “click”; he held up his pretend camera, too, but his motion was holding an iPhone with one hand and tapping the screen to take the picture with the other. It was in this moment that I began to think about how different his life would be due to technology than the relatively technology-free childhood I had. Even for someone who is savvy with technology, the feeling was uncomfortable, and I felt disconnected from what he may experience in his own life.
Today, our children will never know a world without the internet, texting, cell phones, or computers. As natural as learning everyday words in the environment such as “banana,” “car,” and “spoon,” my toddler daughter quickly said “puter” for computer, as it was a natural part of her environment. These experiences can feel disconnecting for parents, but with purposeful thought and time put into navigating the media world, media can serve as another area for growth and learning for parents and children alike.
How do we help our children experience media in a healthy way? It’s all about balance. Try these tips:
1. Set a good example: Undoubtedly, you use your phone or computer for work, but try to separate work time from family time. Your approach to media becomes a model for your child to live by. Make sure your example speaks as loudly as your words. Find a permanent place at home to put your device that serves as a storage place, and frees you up at home for a period of time. Be cognizant about how and when you answer your phone when you are with other people. For example, when talking to a friend or your spouse, do you accept phone calls or answer texts? Is meal time a time to have the phone out or next to you? Decide what example you would like your children to follow, and set the lead yourself. It’s a powerful image for the people you’re with to see you reject a call in order to listen to them thoroughly. For an even greater impact, try powering off your phone to give your child uninterrupted quality time, free from vibrations, dings, and notifications.
2. Sit next to your child: Every parent has used the phone or tablet to keep a child entertained while waiting for a doctor or sitting in a restaurant. Try not to just use the device as a babysitter for your child. Take time to sit next to them and explore apps together. You can learn many things about your child as they play games and explore apps. Enter their world of entertainment and find out what they find enjoyable and why. Even the process of thinking about what is fun and why can be an enlightening conversation for children and adults. Try playing your child’s favorite game with them, it may be more challenging than you think.
3. Stay Organized Digitally: Set up your computer, tablet, or phone for play time and learning time. Sometimes this can be tough for kids to understand, but setting clear expectations and boundaries beforehand can help with the process. Talk with your child about how technology can be used for fun times, and can be used for learning, and often the two purposes intersect. Organizing apps together can be helpful, also. For example, are you using apps to practice math facts with your child? Organize the apps together and talk about when and how you want your child to use them. When your child is using a device, have times for free choice and times where specific applications are used to accomplish a learning goal. Also, use technology to learn together. Many apps are more advantageous for kids when an adult who knows their level of learning is able to provide structure and support to the concepts in the app.
4. Observe a Sabbath – Consider setting aside a larger period of time to abstain from media as a family. Sundays are often a good time for this, and you and your family can pursue other restful activities. Explore an art project together, play a family game, get outdoors, take a long walk, or sleep. Whatever you do, try to do it without the influence of media, as a family. Talk about the feelings associated when abstaining from media as a family. Use these conversations to instill your values about technology in your family life.
Media has an influence on your child; stand by their side and enter their world. Guide them with humility, because you are still learning, too, and your children will be thankful for the time you’ve invested.
This article was originally published in The Old Schoolhouse magazine.