Study after study shows that kids are obsessed with technology. It begins the first time you open the Ant Smasher app and thrust your smartphone into your fussy baby’s hands. Or when you plop them down to watch Doc McStuffins while you’re on your phone.
There’s no doubt the screen provides distraction for kids and peace and quiet for parents. There’s also no doubt that most kids learn the magic of tech from a very early age. It’s easy to see why they might become obsessed with it all.
A little technology is healthy, but too much of anything is not. The younger the child is when parents begin limiting screen time, the easier it is to do. No matter the age of their offspring, though, there are weapons parents can use to combat their kids’ tech obsession.
1. Provide Tech That’s Limited by Design
Your 10-year-old wants to drive a car. You don’t hand them the keys to your vehicle, right? Instead, you buy them a battery-powered ATV they can ride around the yard.
The ATV can only move so fast, it’s low to the ground, and it comes with automatic shut-off features. It’s designed for kids to have fun but with limits. Why not apply the same philosophy to the screens they use, like smartphones?
A cell phone for kids allows calls and texts, shoots photos and video, and plays music. However, the ability to connect to the internet, social media apps, and games are not part of the design. Parental control is built right in.
Parents can take advantage of these limitations to teach kids about responsible smartphone use. They can start them out at a young age without some of the worrisome bells and whistles. Perhaps then, as kids get older and sneakier, lessons learned early might help them avoid obsession.
2. Track Activity and Confront Issues
Tracking apps are great tools parents can use to watch their kids’ online and social media activity. There are several to choose from, so parents need to compare features, coverage, and costs.
Tracking apps monitor social media activity, calls and texts, web browsing, app use, and more. Many not only track activity, but also allow parents to shut off activity after a specified amount of time. Most also track your child’s location via GPS.
Compulsive screen time isn’t always about the device. It may be a sign that something else is going on with kids, like bullying, depression, or ADHD. Tracking apps help parents identify obsessive behavior quickly so they can begin to address any underlying issues.
Knowing where your child spends time online and for how long is only the first step. Parents need to use that information to have thoughtful discussions with kids about the dangers of their activity. Children need to know tracking apps aren’t a way to spy on them but a way to nip negative habits in the bud.
3. Put Limits on Devices and Accounts
Device manufacturers have figured out that kids can develop an obsession with everything from gaming devices to cell phones. Most have also figured out that parents want a way to limit their kids’ screen time. To keep their devices flying off the shelves, developers have wisely added parental controls.
The same goes for online service accounts. For example, Google’s Family Link allows parents to set limits on kids’ accounts and linked devices. The idea is to help kids develop healthy digital habits as they mature.
Even toy tablets — those devices you buy to keep your kids’ sticky paws off yours — have added parental controls. Those controls limit access to the internet and apps and restrict screen time.
If the screen keeps going black every time your kids play with a device for a while, they’ll catch on. There may be some tantrums now and again, but most will realize it’s time to move on to something else. That could be a good old-fashioned toy, a real book, or a rousing game of kick the can.
4. Get Treatment for a Child’s Digital Addiction
Digital addiction among teens is a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Is the addiction the result of too much time on a device? Or is spending too much time on the device an escape from something else?
The fact is that parental controls are not magic pills. Digital addiction is not yet officially classified as a behavioral disorder. But its rising prevalence is spurring the research that may land it there in the near future.
The signs of tech addiction are the same as those of a drug addict. There’s figuring out how to override parental controls and sneaking away to “get high.” There’s also the lying, elaborate subterfuge, and extreme behavior when the drug/device is taken away.
Most parents wouldn’t attempt to treat their kids for a drug addiction themselves, and the same holds for a tech addiction. Treatment options include therapy, residential facilities, and summer camps where both the underlying cause and the digital addiction are treated. Parents can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline for assistance in finding providers.
5. Set a Good Example
W.E.B. Dubois once said, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” In other words, the example you set will shape your child.
If, from the time a child is born, a parent is never without a smartphone appendage, the child will likely emulate the behavior. Parents are the first teachers. They must assess their own digital behaviors and adjust them to serve as good examples.
Parenting in the digital age requires more mentoring than monitoring. Parents can’t just rely on the parental controls tech developers add to their products. They have to actually parent.
Kids need to know why their screen time is limited, not merely that it is. Parents should put down their tablet and play a board game or take a walk with their child instead. Dinner time and family time should be no-device zones for everyone.
Remember, the time you spend texting, posting, and emailing to communicate with others is time you could spend talking to your kids. That’s how you’ll know what’s going on in their lives and how you can spot signs of trouble early. It’s how your kids learn the value of human interaction.
Start your kids off right, and you may never need to battle a child’s digital obsession. Even if you do have to slay your own.