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September 2011

Ages & Stages

Unplugged

Setting Limits on Your Kids' Screen Time

By Robbye Fox

“You’ve been playing video games all weekend—your mind’s going to turn to mush!” exclaims Mom as she forcefully unplugs 14-year-old Tommy’s Xbox. “Mom, I just reached my highest level ever and you didn’t give me a chance to save it! Thanks a lot!” yells Tommy angrily.

Sixteen-year-old Amy is impossible to awaken for school every morning. “Were you up late on Facebook again?” Dad asks. “That’s it—it’s time to deactivate your account.”

Sound familiar? Scenarios like these play out in homes throughout the Washington metropolitan area as parents of tweens and teens struggle with where to draw the line on their children’s technology use. It’s not like the “good old days” when kids watched cartoons only on Saturday mornings and the primary form of communication did not involve typing with thumbs.

A New Era

However, technology is here to stay, and no amount of grousing about it will change that fact. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s longitudinal study, “Generation M²: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” published in 2010, children in this age group spend 7 hours, 38 minutes per day, or 53 hours per week, using media, an increase of more than 2 hours from 2004 and more than 3 hours from 1999. This does not include time spent texting on cell phones, which often seem to be super glued to the hands of adolescents.

How do parents overcome the technology tidal wave? Attempts to limit its use tend to cause fights, such as those described above. The good news is that, despite the omnipresent technology, teens do report that parents are the greatest influence in their lives and that having reasonable, respectful rules gives them a sense of security and love. Determining how to set and enforce those rules can be exhausting, but it is time well spent.

Educate Yourself and Your Teen

Pay attention to your teens’ electronic activities, whether it is the video games they’re playing or the websites they’re visiting, and research the benefits and pitfalls. Then, take time to educate your children on the dangers of electronic use and abuse—from the risks of increased aggression and cyberbullying to leaving electronic fingerprints and risking identity theft, copyright infringement and plagiarism. As with educating teens about sexual activity, this involves more than a one-time “big talk.” News media provide frequent stories of technology use gone bad, which you can employ as conversation starters with your teens. Even when they roll their eyes, they are using their ears.

Engage Positively

Technology provides great opportunities for learning life and career skills when parents engage teens in the electronic work of the family. One Olney mom taught her daughter to pay family bills online, helping her learn valuable financial and software skills. “When she saw how much we pay for electricity, she started reminding family members to turn off the lights when they leave a room,” the mom says. Other useful activities include organizing and maintaining your family’s electronic photo collection, researching new dinner recipes, managing an online grocery list, creating the family’s holiday card or photo calendar online, or even building an iPod or MP3 playlist for your next trip to the gym.

Involve Them in Setting Limits

People of all ages are more likely to comply with rules they help to set, so involve your teen in the process. Lisa DiSciullo, of Ijamsville, was tired of battling with her 14-year-old son over his time playing the video game “Gears of War,” which she considered excessively violent, so she decided to get curious. “I asked him what it was that he liked about the game and was shocked when his response was, ‘It’s the only thing I’m good at.’ ” DiSciullo’s son had changed schools recently and was discouraged about his academic and social life. He was using the game to escape. She and her husband spent more time engaging with their son in other activities and also took him to a Gears of War convention in Florida to learn more about the game. Together, they agreed on a family “unplugged time” of two hours every evening for nonelectronic activities. As their son became more encouraged about other aspects of his life, he spent less time playing video games and even asked his mom why she let him waste two years on them. Becoming aware of what need electronics might be filling in your teen’s life—whether it’s to feel connected, in control, or capable—and helping him seek other ways to fill that void can strengthen your relationship and reduce battles.

Set a Good Example

If you text your teen from the driveway of his friend’s house instead of walking to the door to pick him up, don’t be surprised when you’re in the kitchen and he texts you from upstairs asking what’s for dinner. Watching TV with your laptop on your lap and your cell phone beside you, checking your smartphone while watching your child’s soccer game, and sending a text or email at every stoplight are examples that teens are quite likely to follow.


Limit-Setting Tips

Consider setting unplugged hours or an electronics curfew. Specifying hours that technology cannot be used might be easier than tracking the hours your teen spends plugged in.

Create “No Technology Zones,” such as the dinner table, short car rides and bedrooms.

Use built-in filters and password protection available from your cable, Internet and wireless providers and through your Internet browser.

Sign up for emails from Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) to stay informed about the latest technology crazes among teens.

Model being unplugged by turning off your phone or logging off the laptop when you are around your teen.


Robbye Fox is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which has a free workshop, “Why Don’t My Kids Listen to Me?” on September 10, 3-4:30 pm. PEPparent.org