This is Part 1 in a series of posts about helping children build a safe and healthy relationship with technology.
What kind of kids do you want to raise?
If you were to ask parents around the world this question, you’d likely get the same answer. Most hope to raise kids who are good and kind. Before digital technologies became a fixture of childhood, achieving this objective used to be a relatively straightforward task. After all, kids were surrounded by adult role models who demonstrated how to be respectful, thoughtful, and kind. Plus, the “real” world is full of rules, laws, street signs, and even age-old social norms that guide human behavior.
In the U.S., 98% of kids age eight and under live in a home with some type of mobile device, and close to half have their own tablet.[i]
That’s not the case online. In the digital world, rules and norms (if there are any!) are less well-defined. The spaces where kids hang out—like Snapchat or while playing Fortnite—offer few adult role models, so lots of kids are growing up in a digital world devoid of mentors or guides. Many young children play interactive multi-player games (wearing voice-activated headsets that let them communicate with other players) and use social media well before the minimum age, which for most of these sites is 13.
A “Real” Life Example
During classes I teach on “digital literacy,” young students are eager to discuss their online lives. For example, one morning I greeted a crop of 12-year old boys who told me they’d spent much of their weekend playing video games. I asked them to tell me about the games suggesting, off-handedly, that I just might “check them out.”
“Don’t do it,” one wide-eyed 12-year old warned me, “You wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
He explained that there’s “a lot of cussing and bullying” during online game-play, much of it directed at “squeakers.” These are the youngest, newest, and most naïve gamers.
“Yeah, this squeaker started playing Call of Duty,” said another twelve-year-old boy. “Everyone was cussing at him and calling him names. I could hear him softly crying, so I told him to use his mute button.”
“Call of Duty,” he explained, “is a first-person shooter game with lots of violence and gore.” He told me he was nine years old when he first started playing the game.
“I remember the first time I logged on and said ‘hi.’ Everyone started cussing and bullying me. I learned all the cuss words I know in the first hour of playing that game.”
Preparing Kids for a Digital World
Of course, not every online kid will be subjected to f-bombs during gameplay, but many will encounter an unkind text, receive an unsolicited message from a stranger, or experience the disappointment of posting a photo that doesn’t get many “likes.”
How can we prepare our children for the inevitable pressures of an online world?
The simplest way is to keep them offline as long as possible while they are young. Here’s why: While there’s not much long-term research (yet) on the impact of today’s devices on children, there is a wealth of research on what comprises healthy child development. Young children require rich, multidimensional experiences in a real, three-dimensional world. A screen—regardless of whether it’s a TV, tablet, smartphone, gaming console, computer, or even an internet-connected toy—just can’t deliver the same experiences.
When it is time to introduce screen-based activities to your kids, do it with them. Select cooperative games like Over Cooked or Pokémon Go and play them as a family. That allows kids to enjoy the best of video games and avoid bullying, bad language, and violence.
Screens Are Here to Stay
We can’t change that screens are here to stay. But, we can change how we raise little ones in a screen-filled world. Start by being mindful of what young children need most—face-to-face interaction with loving human beings. This is how they gain social skills, emotional self-control, creativity, resilience, and most of all, the ability to get along with other people and to see things from different perspectives. This is the strong foundation children need to thrive in a digital world.
Here are four excellent tips from the organization, Children and Screens:
- Set boundaries. Limit exposure for the very youngest children, turn off devices during mealtimes, one to two hours before bedtime, and make children’s bedrooms media free.
- Monitor use, behavior, and content. Block inappropriate content, watch and play the video games children are playing, keep electronic media in public places, and talk to the parents of children’s friends about what children do at their homes.
- Be clear about what is acceptable. Establish and enforce house rules about screen time, and don’t let media interfere with family relationships.
- Engage and lead by example. Obey your own house rules, and remember children are watching.
[i]Rideout, V. “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Zero to Eight,” Common Sense Media (2017), p. 3. Retrieved on December 5, 2017 from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/ research/csm_zerotoeight_fullreport_release_2.pdf