An enormous challenge for parents is the monitoring, oversight, and control of the digital and social world of children and adolescents.  The challenge is daunting because:

  • That world includes all sorts of technology (smartphones and watches, tablets, game consoles, voice-activated everything);
  • There is a vast range of activities and resources that one can do with these devices (play video games, pursue educational activities, learn to prepare recipes or how to make or use various weapons);
  • Children and adolescents have a social world at their fingertips and use of a social network portfolio that includes various apps (Facebook, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumbir, Flickr, Xing, Renren, Google+, Disqus) to connect with friends, relatives, strangers, predators, and others;
  • Young people rely heavily on these applications as a primary means for interpersonal contact with others.  For example, more than 15% of adolescents turn to social media websites to seek support and share personal distress and 25% of adolescents describe themselves as being ‘constantly connected’ to the Internet;
  • Adolescents spend nearly 9 hours per day using screen-based media, 3 hours on their phones, 45 minutes of television, and send/receive 30-100 texts on average in just one day.  On a typical day, children spend at least 2 hours in front of screens on weekdays and twice that number weekends;
  • Everything one might want on a screen seems available 24/7 and that includes the last things parents might want their children to see on the screen;
  • It is easy to download and purchase sought-after items that are otherwise unattainable or illegal. Alcohol retailing through digital media have allowed underage purchases to be delivered directly to users because these sites claimed and utilized delivery services that were supposed to examine age verification at the time of delivery, but only 40% of actual deliveries failed to ask for such verification;
  • One cannot take the obvious strategy of eliminating all technology from the child’s or adolescent’s environment.  Education and school work at all levels rely on technology and increasingly online “books” and reading materials, podcasts, little movies, and animation are all part of the young child’s daily work and require access to technology;
  • Over 50% of children over the age of 4 have their own television and even more have their own tablet or mobile device;
  • 92% of one-year olds have used a mobile device and children ages 3-4 can begin using these devices without the help of a parent or adult; and
  • With children becoming increasingly familiar with and having access to technology, we are not completely surprised to learn in the news that a 9-month old accidentally rented a car online.

Why do we even want to control technology among our children?  Well, access to information and the impact of that information can create enormous problems concern most parents.  For example, a 13-year old boy with whom AK worked spent the weekends on his computer (8-12 hours each day).  He spent the time looking at pornography, although he could flick the screen immediately if a parent entered or approached asking what he was doing. A 15-year-old girl was forbidden to use her smartphone after dinner because she seemed to be “addicted” to chatting and texting instead of eating dinner with the family or doing homework.  The teen did not follow the rule and slept every night with her phone on her chest or on the pillow right near her face so she could feel the vibration (no ring) and chat with her friends throughout the night.  And a 9-year old girl somehow got into a chat room and formed a “relationship” of three weeks and then arranged a date with a 21-year old guy.  He assumed she was a college student who lived in a nearby city, about 25 miles away. The date did not occur and only came to light to the parents because the 9-year old was having trouble arranging transportation. These examples convey part of the worrisome activities. Much more commonly, the concerns focus on cyberbullying, that is, the use of technology to endlessly tease and verbally brutalize others or to be the victim of such actions.  Using technology, one can bully others without revealing one’s identity. And to make matters worse, it is easy for others to join in to make the bullying more of a group event. Just when a child thought he or she might be home safely and free from peer intimidation, bullying can begin or indeed continue from what was already a bad day.

When Should a Parent Start to Worry?

Now might be a pretty good time.  One survey of parents and children has noted that parents allow access to the Internet on average at the age of three.  Moreover, children spend twice as much time online as their parents believe. Young children note they are surfing the web about two hours per day.  By ages of 10 and 11, children are using up to three different devices (phones, computers, tablets, game consoles) to access the web. And during that time, depending on age and time on the computer or smartphone, children witness self-harm, pornography, clinical problems such as eating disorders, and many things that they themselves regard as disturbing.  They often share personal information on the social media including photos of themselves, addresses, parent information, and tidbits that can be widely circulated and serve as another source of bullying. There is a perfect storm when these two components unite: Children have great access to digital media and do all they say they do and parents believe that there is no problem or that things are under control.

Despite our examples, the digital the media cannot be given simple verdicts as being “good” or “bad.”  They can be both and neither. For example, we know that viewing aggressive video games in fact can increase aggressive behavior of people who view them well beyond those moments that people are playing the games.  And less well known but also true is that viewing prosocial videos that display honesty, respect, and being kind to others can increase those prosocial behaviors. Also, access to digital media is critical to routine educational and school activities and later in life to job opportunities.  Children not only need access to the digital media and the worlds they open but also must be facile in using them. The difficulty is deciding how to help and protect children and adolescents and that task is not so clear. If you believe that time with the media is a problem in your home here are some things you can do.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Have some together time on the computer (tablet or smartphone) to help establish this is not just a solitary activity;
  • Take up a new hobby, topic, or interest together (something about a country, a sport, a type of art, a game, a superhero, an animal, a type of music) and have time together working on that (make it fun, no exams, quizzes, or reprimands during this time).  Ideally, let the child select to topic but you provided the final say;
  • If you are blocking certain types of content, assume your child is likely to be skilled at getting around them, if not at home, then throughout the day at school.  At my parenting center (AEK), initially we were surprised the first couple of times we heard a confident parent say that digital media time was well managed at home only to hear the child’s version without the parent present.  That version included information about the scores of tricks children used or devised, often with the help of peers to completely thwart parent efforts. When a parent said, “Oh, he could never do that on the computer or with that game,” separately the child would say to us, “I do that all the time and most of my friends do it too.”
  • Limit screen time.  Parents at our center have noted that their children play on the computer for many hours long into the night and then most of the day during the weekends.  Some of the children barely take breaks for family meals.  It is fine and in such cases advisable to limit the time.
  • If your child is prone to aggressive behavior or anxiety, be careful that the content of any video games or other material will not make things worse.  For example, anxiety and fears, common in early childhood, can be made worse by watching trauma or events that depict terroristic acts, violence, death and dying in detail;
  • Usually, explaining is not enough.  Parents might adopt the view that if they just inform the child of the dangers and reach some verbal understanding that will help.  Certainly, explain things to the child. That has broad benefits well beyond this topic. Yet, explaining is not usually an effective method for changing behavior, that is, what one does.  Explain but more is needed;
  • Modeling is critical.  Parents too occasionally play on the screen for extended periods and may engage in some of the screen-time activities they would not want their child to do.  Parents occasionally note they are playing very aggressive games, with strangers on-line, or even watching pornography which their children happen to see or are in the same room playing independently.  The old parental expression and hope, “Do what I say, not what I do” looks like it does not really work all that well. Children are much more likely to do what you do and not what you say!
  • Monitoring your child and adolescent.  For decades, we have known that monitoring one’s child (knowing where they are and what they are doing) is critically important.  Unmonitored children and adolescents tend to get into much more trouble (with peers, drugs, vandalism). Monitoring what a child is doing and being directly involved in activities with a child are like “mental health vaccinations” that help your child from “catching some behaviors” you do not want them to have.  Monitoring does not mean hovering but rather keeping track of what the child is doing and with whom. Monitoring what our child is playing or doing is important. The digital media just makes it all-the-more challenging. Yet, there is much we can do as noted in the guidelines we have outlined.

For Further Information

Guidelines. There is are useful guidelines on the Web for parents about how to handle and monitor child use of the digital media.  Here are two that seem especially sound in the guidance they offer:

Statistics of What and When: Children and adolescent use of Internet and other online devices.  Here are sources to summarize some of the research findings.

Baby Renting a Car online.  Example noted earlier.–abc-news-personal-finance.html