How to Raise Respectful Digital Citizens

The best way to help our children navigate social media and technology is through explicit instruction of our expectations for their behavior in this realm.

Without a doubt, kids coming of age in 2016 will be exposed to many amazing and wonderful experiences through technology. The scope of their new world can also put them at risk for emotional or physical harm. The best way to help our children navigate social media and technology is through explicit instruction of our expectations for their behavior in this realm.

Many parents will find it helpful to create a plan that sets them on a path to become trusted guides as their children explore the digital world.

It begins with you

Remember, from the time they are babies, your kids are watching your every move. Your child is learning habits and life lessons with you as their role model. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to model respectful use of technology and devices.

We all feel the magnetic pull toward our cell phones or computers. We want to check: did that friend respond to my text? Have I gotten more work emails? What’s happening on Instagram? As you stare into your screens, think about how your kids see you from the other side. 

It’s difficult to set boundaries around screen time for our kids when we cannot follow our own rules. As a parent and role model, if I say that there will be no screens during meal times or after a certain hour in the evening, I need to be clear that the rules also apply to me. When I slip up, I take responsibility and apologize for my mistakes.

As we come to grips with our own dependence on screens, it’s important to understand the neuroscience between screen “addictions” and dopamine release. Talk openly and honestly with your kids, from a young age, about how the addictive nature of screens affects everyone in your household.

Set boundaries and expectations at the outset

Start setting boundaries with any screen time (including TV!) when your children are very young. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently set new screen time guidelines that can help parents gauge appropriate levels of screen time for their kids at different developmental ages.

My kids are allowed one hour of screen time, after homework and before dinner, on the days that I work. Because my kids know exactly when and for how long they can expect to watch TV each week, they don’t bother to beg or whine at other times.

As parents, we all know the pressure of wanting our children to behave, especially in public or when there are other things our our minds. I’m much more likely to break our family’s screen time rules when I’m hosting a dinner party or waiting in line at a doctor’s office. I do try to acknowledge, even to my kids, when I use screens as a pacifier or for behavior modification.  When the goal is the development of my kids’ executive functioning and self-regulation skills, I’m not doing them any favors if I just hand them my cell phone to keep them quiet.

Wait… as long as you can

The effects of screen time on the developing brain depend on the type of screens being accessed. More dopamine is released with interactive screens (such as playing video games) rather than passive screens (watching television). 

When you open the door to iPad apps and gaming, it’s open forever. I think of a skiing analogy: once you’re skiing on black diamonds, the thrill of a green circle is gone. My rule of thumb has been to limit my children to passive screen time for as long as possible.

The average age that a child obtains a smartphone has dropped from 12 years old in 2012 to age 10 today. Even if I can hold out against my kids’ pleas for a new device, I’m aware that they will be exposed to uncensored media content from all sides. For this reason, I want to teach my children to have self control with technology, to recognize the risks associated with the cyber world and to understand that the privilege of using technology comes with many responsibilities.

Teach digital citizenship

Start the conversation about digital citizenship early. While being sensitive to their developmental receptivity, I have talked to my kids about drugs, sex, social inequalities, and real-life dangers since they were tiny. 

We have a plan for where to meet if there’s a fire in our house or what to say if a stranger tries to lure them into a car. We have practiced my phone number and our street address so that they can get help if they are lost. We work so hard to make sure our kids are safe in the physical world, yet we often make the assumption that they will somehow know what to do in the cyber world without a plan in place.

To start the conversation about cyber safety, it is essential to agree upon a  common language, using up-to-date vocabulary like “digital citizenship,” “digital footprint,” “social media,” “cyberbullying,” “allies/upstanders,” and “respect for self and others.” By getting to know your school district’s technology policies, you can align your language with the lessons that your kids are being taught by other trusted adults.

Consider a contract

There are many parenting experts who suggest ways to tie device privileges to contracts (money for data plans, missing assignments in schools, etc.). At the most basic level, I believe that it’s important for me to make clear that if I’m paying for a smartphone and data plan, then I own that phone.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll be asking for passwords and reading their texts. But it does mean that if my child doesn’t follow whatever contract we put in place, I can confiscate his phone or simply stop paying for data.

The long-term consequences of children’s digital behavior can be both positive and negative. I want my kids to know that I trust them to make good decisions in the cyber world and I’m available for support when they don’t.

My goal as a parent is to keep my children emotionally, physically, and psychologically safe. I am not interested in instilling fear stories or predator worries in my kids’ brains. I want to impart an understanding of the cost-benefit analysis of screen time. Then I want to say yes… to apps, websites, and online tools, whatever, as soon as my kids demonstrate that they’re ready to use them responsibly.