Should you let your kid get that app? Here's how to set boundaries during social distancing.

  • When our kids are cooped up at home, they're going to turn to tech. For many households, this is where the battle lines are drawn.

    When our kids are cooped up at home, they're going to turn to tech. For many households, this is where the battle lines are drawn. Getty Images

 
 
Posted5/2/2020 6:19 AM

When our kids are cooped up at home, they're going to turn to tech. For many households, this is where the battle lines are drawn. New tech is tempting, and our kids will always be asking for the next thing on their tech horizon.

Your 8-year-old wants a Nintendo Switch.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Your 10-year-old wants a smartphone.

Your 12-year-old wants to use Snapchat.

And all the kids want to be on TikTok.

How do you know if you should say yes or no?

Having clear criteria and a decision-making process is a good idea, in general. But in today's new reality, it has become even more important. Let go of the judgment of other parents or your own internal guilt about the amount of screen time, and focus on the quality of the experiences that different applications and games make available.

If you can create a greenlighting process or rubric for new apps and devices, it will reduce the power struggles, conflict and guilt.

How is "screen time" different with schools closed?

Before kids were home 24/7, a reflexive "no" might have been easier. After all, there were many other options to occupy their time in a healthy and productive way. They had sports and other after-school activities, or they could simply go outside and play.

Now, that doesn't mean a quick "yes" to scrolling through TikTok all afternoon, but we have to account for what they just lost to social distancing. Your kid was anticipating a big gymnastics meet, a tennis competition, a choir performance, graduation or this year's school play. Whatever they were looking forward to was suddenly taken away. You might not feel like it's the best use of their time to fill that space and sadness with screen time -- but we should celebrate the ways that tech does help with at least some of these losses. It can help by distraction as well as connecting with people we are missing.

Parents, we're supposed to be the experts.

I just want to assure you that it's OK not to know everything and it's OK to tell your kid:

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• I don't know enough about this app to make a good decision right now.

• I can't answer that right now. This isn't a good time for me.

• I need time to look into that with you. Let's set a time to talk about it.

Some kids will launch into lawyer mode and start arguing the point. Some of them show promising potential as future prosecutors. They are so convincing in making their case! Admit it, you're a little bit proud of them, right?

But what you want is for your kid to explain why they want it.

What kids REALLY want vs. what they are asking for

The first thing to do is try to uncover the reasons they want this particular app or device. Find out what they think it's going to do. What you may find is that kids will ask for things, but they are really looking for something else instead.

This is best explained with an example. Your 8-year-old says, "I want Instagram." Find out more. While you might assume that she wants it to share pictures and connect with people via social media, she really wants to use it to change the colors with filters and make cool photos.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

OK, so we can satisfy that need. There are some free Photoshop alternatives that might do the trick. For instance, Hipstamatic is a mobile app that does many of the same things as Instagram, without the social media part. Or try Canva (desktop and mobile) for manipulating photos and creating cool graphics. Now your 8-year-old can get creative to her heart's content -- without your worries about age-inappropriate activities. And you can deputize your kid to research the different options for you to review. (Now of course, maybe your kid is ready for social sharing, and Instagram is fine with you.)

Understanding privacy while sharing devices and apps

If kids are using Google Classroom or another school/learning management app to connect with classmates, or even school email, do they understand that teachers and school administrators can usually see the chat and other communications there? If you created a new email address for your child, what are their expectations for privacy? Do they know whom to share this new email with? If you share your own device with your child (and many families have siblings sharing devices right now) are you taking measures to assure your own privacy? Is your Amazon account set to one-click?

I am hearing horror stories of parents' private photos and emails read by curious middle schoolers with time on their hands, and if an unexpected order hasn't happened to you, it has happened to someone you know.

If they are creating content and sharing it on TikTok or YouTube, how well do they understand settings? Are you the editor-in-chief or do you trust their judgment about what to post?

One hack that some families use is having their kids make TikTok videos in a public space in the house like the living room as opposed to the relative privacy of a bedroom. Even if no one is right there, the more exposed nature of the space may help kids remember that to consider the expected and possibly unexpected members of their audience.

Training wheels

One way to consider new apps for your stuck-at-home child is to use a trial period that works with the adults in the family. For me, this was Discord, the live chat app used by millions of gamers worldwide. Initially, I was not ready for my elementary schooler to jump into social gaming, but I decided to try it in a moderated environment. That way, when one of his in-person extra-curriculars changed to Minecraft during the covid-distancing measures, adult moderation would be part of the deal. Our son gets to connect with his friends and have fun and build skills in a new space that has trusted adults moderating. It's training wheels for the wild West of public servers that he'll want to explore in coming years.

This is his opportunity to demonstrate he can handle the responsibility, which is exciting for kids right now. Any opportunities for autonomy and independence during lockdown are so important for kids stuck at home with parents, especially tweens and teens. You may want to do these experiments on the weekend or whenever you have a bit more time to check in.

It's the same thing with devices. If you've allowed your child to have access to a device of any kind, you should not allow it in their room overnight (this is a good rule for adults, too!). Communicating with friends all the time can be really over-activating for the brain. Same goes for sneaking a Switch session.

Your kids may get mad when you say they can't have their devices with them overnight, but explain to them that 1) they'll actually get some sleep, and 2) you're doing it too! Sleep is crucial for our physical and mental health, even more so right now. We want to keep our immunity up so that we can stay healthy.

There is no normal now

Lastly, it's unlikely that we'll ever go "back to normal" after this crisis is over. Keep this in mind as you create and revise your criteria for these household decisions. As a tech optimist, I think this is an opportunity for us all to learn. This exposure to the ways our kids use tech creatively will expand our understanding of their world and will help us empathize with its challenges. Further, our kids will discover new interests during this time that may continue. Many parents are also sharing that their kids are self-regulating more as tech rules are softened. Families report their kids actually want to go outside, play Legos, read a book or just take a break from tech. During this time, parents will find out what self-regulation looks like, which can inform parenting choices. Some kids will need more support to learn to self regulate. Many parents will observe their kids do seek out a balance and can maintain other interests.

As with any important decisions, take your time, try new things on your terms, and gather all the information you need. We don't need to be tech experts to be good parents.

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Heitner is the author of "Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World." Find her online at raisingdigitalnatives.com.

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