10 Lessons for Parents Raising Children in a Digital World

Those of you who’ve been hanging around Sunshine Parenting for a while know how much I love to research and talk about the benefits of getting unplugged. Getting off our screens and more focused on face-to-face relationships is a topic I’m passionate about, especially as I’ve focused on how we can coach our kids to be better friends to one another.

I run a summer camp that has one the strictest unplugged policies around: zero devices for campers (leave them at home!) and staff can only use their devices on time off and not within camp boundaries. I’ve even been known to tell parents who are using their phones on pick-up day to use their phone in my office instead of having it out in public. That’s how much seeing a phone out in camp makes me bristle.

I have become so passionate about being unplugged because I have personally experienced the benefits of getting off my devices, and I have heard countless testimonials from kids themselves about the social and psychological benefits they experience from getting off their screens for a few weeks while at camp. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Heitner’s positive-sounding title (Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World), which includes a cover graphic with a child’s head inside a screen.

But reading Heitner’s book changed my negative perspective about screens. She supports unplugged time, but her insights have given me a new way to think about and approach my kids’ screen time. Heitner describes three parenting styles when it comes to screen-use: limiters, mentors, and enablers. After reading Screenwise, I’m inspired to be less of a “limiter” and more of a “mentor” when it comes to my kids and their devices.

Heitner addresses a lot of the concerns I and others who work with kids have – about our kids spending too much time looking at their screens instead of interacting with each other, kids saying and doing things online that can permanently harm their reputations, and the amount of time we see our kids “wasting” on screens instead of doing more productive things. Here are just some of the many insights I gleaned from the book, which I highly recommend to parents with kids of all ages:

#1 As parents, even if we can’t keep up with the newest apps, we can positively impact our kids and how they navigate their digital world by using our own social experiences in the real and digital worlds as examples.

#2 Asking our kids’ permission before posting their photos online is an important way we cultivate a “culture of permission” and teach them to extend that courtesy to others.

#3 We parents need to be less judgmental of what other parents are doing or not doing in regards to screen use and open up more dialogue to work together on this important issue.

#4 We must teach our kids to be digital “natives,” because a lot is at stake, including their relationships, their reputation, and their time management.

#5 We need to be intentional about our approach to technology by mentoring our kids, modeling thoughtful use ourselves, creating times to be unplugged, and teaching kids to repair mistakes (which will inevitably happen).

#6 Just like we teach our kids table manners, we can mentor our kids in digital etiquette and cover topics like oversharing and slacktivism.

#7 Not all digital time is the same. We need to think about time limits versus content limits. If our kid is creating something on a digital device, that’s time being spent differently than time spent mindlessly surfing the Web.

#8 Thinking of some of our kids’ tech time as “connecting with friends” rather than “using their device” reframes how we can think about tech use.

#9 Kids often feel parents are unavailable due to our own use of devices. Some feel they “can’t compete with their parents’ smart phones, so the stop trying.” Eek. That’s a call to action.

#10 It’s better to engage in conversation with our kids about what’s happening in their texting and social media than to try to “catch” them doing something wrong.

After reading Heitner’s book, I’m inspired to be a more “tech-positive” parent who mentors my kids and models thoughtful use of technology while still creating times for our family to be unplugged. I’ve already used one of her suggestions. I asked my boys to share with me the Instagram feed of one of their friends who they thought presented him/herself in a positive way and one who didn’t. It was reassuring to see that they are savvy and understand how what they post impacts how others think about them. It was a much more positive conversation than, “Hey, I need to look through your texts.” And, since everything now disappears (Snapchat, erased texts, etc.), the thought that we can monitor all of our kids’ communication is no longer valid (and was never realistic anyway).

I will still gratefully embrace our unplugged time at camp, but I will also be using Heitner’s ideas to mentor and model “tech positivity” the rest of the year. If your kids are young, and you can read Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World before letting them on a device of their own, that would be ideal. And for those of you who, like me, got blind-sided by how screen-dominated our family’s life has become, Heitner offers some great insights to stay on a positive track when it comes to technology.

If you pick up Heitner’s book (the paper version), here are the pages I’ve dog-eared to re-read or use in discussions with my kids: 32, 47, 54, 80, 86, 88, 95, 104, 112, 114, 132, 137, 152, 165, 176, and 186. If you read it, let me know what you think!

Raising Digital Natives (Heitner’s website)

Related Posts:
Five Reasons to Unplug
Way Too Much of a Good Thing
Screen Overload: Five New Family Rules

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