Parents are constantly searching for ways to build responsibility and foster good judgment in their children. However, despite the best intentions, families often get caught up in the day-to-day struggle with technology. The dynamic becomes inconsistent rules that parents struggle to enforce, rather than building communication with their children.
Child development experts suggest fostering agency in young people — specifically around technology. This can involve setting house rules, giving young people free choice within that environment, and letting them see the results of those choices.
Now, how do we get there? Are there ways for building agency around technology with kids?
Parentology spoke with Dr. Ryan Thomas, a psychological assistant/postdoctoral fellow at Greenhouse Therapy Center in Pasadena, CA. He gave us eight steps parents can take to foster agency around technology in the family.
Family Communication About Technology
Allow children to be a part of the “tech rules” discussion.
“Children are often bombarded with lists of rules about technology use without any real explanation of the rationale behind them,” says Thomas. “Allowing them a seat at the table and take part in framing the rules helps them to understand the ‘why’ behind the rule. This makes them feel more invested in the final product. Of course, parents have the final say on the rules.”
Ask — don’t tell — your children about the values and pitfalls of technology.
“Instead of repeating the same ineffective pattern of telling your children what to think about technology, try asking them what they see as the benefits and pitfalls of their favorite [content].” These open-ended questions help young people to think critically about whether various forms of technology use are adding to, or subtracting from, their quality of life.
Learn to talk with your children about their favorite forms of technology.
“Tech-speak can sound like gibberish to those unfamiliar with it. Even a teenager’s text message can feel as inscrutable as a CIA cipher.” Thomas recommends looking into the apps, games, websites, and shows your children like. “You gain a better understanding of the technology your child is accessing, which is critical for their online safety. You also remove an obstacle to connecting with your child about a big part of his or her life.”
Create a Strategy to Find a Balance
Post a list of tech rules in a strategic place that children can see and reference.
“Post rules for technology near devices themselves, or near the charger for mobile devices. This reminds children that technology must be used responsibly, much like a warning label on a hot cup of coffee urges handling with caution,” Thomas says. He explains that this visual reminder can help resolve disputes or confusion, and he adds, “Remember, that your list may need pictures for children who can’t yet read.”
Work on limiting technology use together as a family by replacing tech time with family activities.
In his practice, Thomas frequently hears from frustrated children; they are expected to follow tech rules that limit their tech use, while their parents aren’t. That double standard isn’t good for anyone. “Model responsible technology use for your children by implementing ‘family tech-free time’ where everyone turns off their devices and joins in an activity together, like a board game or bike ride.”
Encourage your children to pursue “low-tech” hobbies before “high-tech” ones.
“With the surplus of screens at our fingertips, some activities such as drawing or playing music are easier and more convenient than ever before. However, the feeling of a stylus on a screen has nowhere near the visceral impact of a paintbrush on a canvas. Foster in your children a love for the analog world by encouraging them to spend 30 minutes on a ‘low-tech’ activity before turning on a screen.”
The Power of Positivity
Use screen time as a reward for other good behavior.
“The lure of technology is also a powerful tool to increase motivation for other positive tasks [like chores],” he notes. “Help your child to develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy and teach them the value of hard work by rewarding them with 10 minutes of screen time for helping to set the table, or 5 minutes of screen time for brushing their teeth without a fuss.”
Descriptively praise children for good choices and positive behaviors around technology.
Thomas states that all children, regardless of age, want their parents to be proud of them — and praising positive behaviors can go a long way toward helping them develop healthy agency and self-esteem. “Make a habit out of praising specific positive choices you see you child making around technology, and tie these to character strengths you want to reinforce. Psychological research tells us that it takes about five positive statements to counterbalance one negative statement, so be liberal with your praise!”
Using these steps, parents can foster agency and encourage healthy choices. This helps their children develop responsibility that will be used in other life situations. It also challenges parents to consider what behavior they model. Communication about technology and clear expectations can and should be a house rule for any family.
Dr. Ryan Thomas is registered with the California Board of Psychology as a psychological assistant, PSB94023184, under the supervision of Dr. Andrea Davis, licensed clinical psychologist, PSY12296.