Many parents feel that screens have taken over their family's lives. While few could argue about the benefits digital devices offer, as parents, it's important that we establish guidelines for their use so they remain tools, rather than a source of endless distraction from real life.
Here are some tips for creating a life that balances online activities with those that can only take place in the 3-D world.
1. Talk -- and listen. In the same way that you'll have more than one conversation about the birds and the bees, you'll want to have a series of talks with your family about using screens in a balanced way. Acknowledge that while you want your kids to enjoy all the great things the digital world has to offer, you also want to ensure that they stay engaged with the wide range of activities that make us human. Be sure to listen. The more your youngsters sense your willingness to hear their point of view (most kids will want to be plugged in far more than than parents think they should be), the more willing they'll be to respect your rules.
2. Model healthy habits. If you interrupt conversations when you get a text message or spend hours every night in front of your laptop, your kids will have a hard time accepting your admonition to uplug. Read a book, take a walk, paint, sing or take up piano. By showing your children that there really are ways to have fun that don't require a plug or a battery, they'll be more inclined to follow suit.
3. Establish rituals. In some households, all electronic devices are handed over an hour before kids go to bed. In others, the router is turned off at a specific time. Still other parents institute a rule of "earning" plugged in time; for every twenty minutes spent reading, kids get twenty minutes of online time. The more you establish routines and rituals, the less you'll be pulled into daily haggling over unplugging.
4. Avoid heated negotiations. Many kids are terrific lawyers in the making; they can be highly persuasive when they want something badly. Acknowledge their desire for "a few more minutes," but be clear and decisive; don't fan the flames of their frustration by engaging in angry negotiations that aren't likely to yield a positive result.
5. Invest time in connecting. Spend time with your kids doing offline activities that nourish your relationship. Many parents are happy for their kids to spend hours plugged in because it gives them freedom to the things they want to do -- including catching up on their own online activities. Whether it's inventing a new dessert, hosting a father-daughter UNO championship or taking a family bike ride, make time for real-life activities with your kids that let them know that they're worth your time and undivided attention.
6. Be fearless. Few parents are unaffected when their kids tell them that they're "the meanest mom in the world," or "I wish I'd been born into another family!" But being a parent requires that we make decisions based on what is in the best interest of our child, even if that decision triggers anger and upset. Whether it's insisting that you're going to be keeping an eye on your tween's Facebook page or announcing that cell phones aren't allowed at the dinner table, be willing to lose the popularity contest with your kids.
7. Prepare for withdrawal. If you're commited to establishing more balanced use of screens and digital devices, don't expect your kids to say, "Gee, thanks Mom for cutting back our online time!" The fact is, tablets, cell phones, laptops and the whole array of electronic devices are highly stimulating. Acknowledge your kids' upset without delivering long lectures about why they can't have what they want. Children grow into resilient adults by living through disappointment. It's OK for your kids to be mad, bored or anxious about missing out on what their friends are up to online. Ready yourself for a wave of anger or upset without feeling you have to convince your kids that it's "for the best," or scolding them for going through withdrawal.
Parents today are dealing with a challenge that no other generation has faced. None of us were prepared to deal with the intense pull and highly addictive nature of what the online world has to offer. We're all learning on the fly, trying to make sense of devices and online destinations that, in many cases, our children understand better than we do. As parents, we have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world, without being swallowed whole by it.