The holiday season has us all thinking of giving. With increasing popularity – and even seeming necessity - tech gifts are at the top of our children’s wish lists. So how do we know what device is right for each child and when? How can we ensure that if we say yes to the tech, that decision won’t haunt us in the months – and years - to come? With the thousands of families with whom I’ve engaged in my work, this is the question I hear most often. And it’s worth thinking about. Giving digital approval to our children and teens for devices, games, apps and social networks needs to be more than a yes, more than a magic age, but a process. This evaluation is based on our personal readiness assessment of each child that goes beyond the technology – it includes their schoolwork, social relationships, contribution to the family systems, overall health and their interactions with the other technology in their lives, before we add on or introduce the new. Additionally, and perhaps even more critically, we need to assess our own readiness to parent it. We increase our own level of digital fluency of what is allowed and a clear expectation on how it will be in our lives as individuals and as a family.
Devices and social networks can certainly be tools for the positive, for the fun, for the useful. But we see this best exemplified when the foundational work has been done and parents and their young users are willing to set boundaries and engage in conversations that go beyond the introductory “one and done” discussion. But rather, they’re kept alive and ongoing, changing, deepening, and evolving just as our children and the their technology do. It is our responsibility to teach the ethics and citizenship of all that we allow in our children’s digital engagement as a part of modern day parenting, just as we continue to do away from the screens.
As a mother of five children ranging from ages ten to eighteen, I live this right along with a generation of parents who are first on the scene of high speed, portable Internet connecting us everywhere we go. In our house, each child is interacting with technology in their own ways, based on family principles, personal tendencies and tech scaffolding. This gives them opportunities to do well and have developmentally appropriate success with the technology, with the intention to set them up with habits and behaviors for a healthy digital life. But still, just because we have access or can give all of the technology in the world to our children, doesn’t mean that we always should. Saying “yes” should be an act of relative certainty, not an automatic. The younger the user, the more parallel the use. Allowing us to build a relationship of mentorship and guidance, fostering independence over time.
The fastest path to this approach, simply put, is to fall in love with the Internet. To get to know it, to engage with it, to celebrate it, allows us to see it fully. Here, we know the benefits, the nuances, the language, but we also see the challenges. We recognize our role in strengthening the web for our children and ourselves and that each user contributes to the outcome of life online. Resisting, resenting or ignoring the web, will not make it go away. Hoping for the best after a “yes” isn’t a strategy. But sharing in the process of raising the digital generation to feel supported, seen and understood shines light on our darkest fears of the web. Here, we don’t surrender are agency, but step into our power. The power to both love the Internet and being willing to set boundaries to make it work for our own families.
I know for sure that the digital health and well-being is not a one size fits all conversation or solution. We all have differing approaches, uses, tolerances, and tendencies just as we do in our lives beyond the tech. But it is our obligation to lead our families in this space. To do the work it takes to have tech success we must apply the same thoughtfulness and deliberate parenting all along, both before and after, we say yes.