Parents are always being told, both directly and through news coverage, that the internet and screens are dangerous for their kids. It’s frustrating and anxiety-provoking, making parenting exponentially challenging. So, how do you raise a screen smart kid?
One huge help for parents is public health education and blogger Julianna Miner’s new book — aptly named Raising a Screen Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age.
The Need Is Real
Most parents understand that they should be educating their kids on proper screen time, but they don’t know how to do it or when to start. And usually, once they do realize it, it seems too late.
Miner has been teaching in the public health sector for decades, but she’s probably better known as the creator of the very funny and frank parenting blog Rants From Mommyland. The blog chronicles her (and her friend, Kate’s) journey through parenting multiple kids in multiple carpools. Irreverent, topical, and ultimately good-natured, Miner blogs in that sweet spot between parenting advice columnist and bad mommy culture.
It’s these crossover careers that find Miner being on social media herself a good deal of the time. So when her kids reached cell-owner age, “I found myself saying, ‘Get off your phone,’ with my own phone in hand.”
For Miner, it was important to find the approach to social media that would hit the right mark with her kids. Especially when, “It seemed like I gave my oldest kid her first phone and everything about her life changed pretty much overnight. And it wasn’t just because she got a phone, it was because she got a phone about the same time all of her peers got their first phones.”
Miner found herself in unfamiliar territory, trying to control her daughter’s phone use without any guidance. So, like any well-trained researcher and academic, she turned to studies and data. “I did such a deep dive into the research — 375 peer-reviewed studies.”
The result is a book of many references to academic studies, interviews with social media and internet experts, and feedback from actual kids about their experiences. Miner mixes it up into an easy-to-read, yet information-rich, guide for any parent dealing with kids and screens.
Real Advice From a Real Parent Of Three
Raising A Screen Smart Kid offers advice, but Miner acknowledges every family, and child, is different. Each chapter ends with a list of suggestions, rather than orders.
Some of Miner’s advice? Control the phones in your home. Especially at bedtime. “No one in my house sleeps with their phone in their room — my husband and I included.”
Her reason is entirely research-based, regarding a need as basic as good sleep. Data has shown that due to the blue light emitted by tech devices, using anything with a screen before bedtime, or even having screen devices in one’s bedroom, results in less REM sleep.
Another piece of advice? Have open discussions about online “stranger danger.” Miner spoke to many law enforcement professionals, who said online predators are often someone your child feels they’re familiar with — an online friend. “Even if it’s a stranger, the MO of people who target kids and vulnerable people is to groom them,” Miner says. “They develop a relationship with the child, so when that solicitation comes, they no longer feel like a stranger.”
So what should a parent do? Communicate. “Stress the importance of telling someone when online exchanges start to feel weird. Even if the person they tell isn’t you.”
Miner says most kids are likely to confide in a friend, sibling or peer versus an adult because they’re scared of getting in trouble. “They’re scared of losing their phone, to be honest.”
Unique Challenges of Screens
Miner describes the current generation of parents as “analog dinosaurs raising digital natives.” As the last group of parents who remember a time without mobile devices and technology, we stumble through a landscape that seems completely intuitive to kids. One revealing chart in the book shows penetration rates for forms of technology; radio took 38 years to penetrate society, and Angry Birds just 35 days. Things are moving fast.
How do you monitor online usage at such a pace? Miner’s provides a checklist. Search history is one of the items on the list. Apps are another, including Snapchat and Instagram.
Something Miner says to bear in mind: go beyond what your kids are posting and check out what they’re seeing. “What’s coming up on that Instagram feed and Snapchat stories, that’s establishing the socially normative expectations of what they think their peers are doing all the time.”
Another thing? Those extra long FaceTime chats your daughter has with her friends every day isn’t so very different from your extra long phone calls in the ‘80s. Other takeaways include how to deal with FOMO (fear of missing out), and compulsive phone usage.
And, interestingly, video games might be a social, rather than isolating, activity. The reality, Miner says, “Most successful, the top-selling games in the US for the past five years, have all been multiplayer games. One of the biggest draws of these games is the social nature of play.”
For boys, in particular, Miner says gaming is valuable. “Social connection that takes place through gaming is really valuable to boys in terms of creating and cementing friendships and social connection and building social capital.”
Miner admits to having her own Candy Crush problem — enough of one she had to delete it from her phone. And what affects adults most certainly affects kids and their developing brains. “Candy Crush and Facebook technically are an unpredictable variable reinforcement schedule, which basically means they’re like slot machines. So you pull the handle, not knowing what you’re going to get, but get rewarded just enough to keep pulling the handle.”
Having a Contract Is a Good Start
Miner recommends having a contract in place when handing your kid a phone. She offers up sample contracts in the book, customizable to your family’s needs.
Having clear rules and boundaries, which you model for your child, as well (like no phones at the dinner table, an evening check in time for phones away from bedrooms, and occasional checks of the phone’s content), are all great suggestions for contract inclusion.
In the end, though, Raising a Screen Smart Kid means accepting changes in an often uncertain world. The jury is still out on how this fast penetrating tech is shaping the world; your job is to try and make sure your kids are controlling the devices, not vice versa.
“The most valuable thing we can teach kids about social media, tech and constant connectivity… Like a seesaw, it tips back and forth between being good and bad for you. The only person that can recognize that tipping point, is the individual person.
Miner concludes, “We need to teach our kids the tipping points.”