One of the first daily rituals I established when I became a mom was a simple one meant to foster connectivity — I snapped a quick morning selfie with my baby boy and sent it to my parents who live seven states away. They were delighted to see our smiling faces on a daily basis, and thus began my son’s relationship with digital devices as a mode of communication. And nearly two years later, with my son now old enough to grab my phone and snap the photo himself, the tradition continues.
Suffice it to say my son, and millions of his contemporaries, are being raised with devices within an arm’s reach since practically the moment they came into this world. A recent Deloitte survey found that the average American home has 11 connected devices. And that begs the question: how and when do we start teaching our kids healthy digital habits? We try and teach them healthy eating habits from the moment they start eating solid foods — often by following guidelines from a pediatrician in order to establish a foundation for what will hopefully be a healthy, lifelong relationship with nutrition. But is there a similar rulebook for our children’s digital habits? It seems difficult and often confusing since our digital world is constantly changing and evolving.
A recent #BlogHer20 Parenting panel Tech for Good: How Kids Can Use Technology for Connection and Creativity sponsored by Messenger Kids in April aimed to do just that. The moms and experts on the panel gave their best advice from the trenches of parenthood. Here are five tips they shared for teaching and modeling healthy digital habits for our children. And luckily, their tips build upon one another so parents can seamlessly create guardrails for kids’ digital interactions that are intuitive and provide them with freedom and autonomy along the way.
Create a Safe Contact List
Just as we establish ground rules for indoor play (you know: no kicking soccer balls in the house or no coloring on the walls — the basics), parents can set some basic ground rules for digital behavior. Christine Michel Carter, professional writer, calls herself an “old-school mom” with firm rules for her 8-year-old and a 5-year-old when it comes to social media and technology. “My kids know who they can and cannot talk to without me being present in the room, in their phones and on their iPads,” Carter said on the panel. “And that’s just immediate family members.”
This basic rule about knowing who you can and cannot talk to makes sense for our children’s safety. But with the Internet being so vast and accessible, knowing about tools that help create fences for our children is a big help. Thankfully, Messenger Kids by Facebook makes this easy for parents. The app, which allows kids to connect with friends and loved ones, also allows parents to set controls and review and manage the contact list through the Parent Dashboard. So kids will only be chatting and messaging with an approved roster of loved ones. And parents can rest a bit easier knowing their kids are following their rules.
Make Bedtime the Rule; Not the Exception
Another basic rule that parents can start establishing from a young age is a digital curfew or bedtime rule. “If it’s past your bedtime or one hour close to your bedtime, you should not be using any type of tech or digital device so you can unwind,” Carter said of another tech rule in her home.
Carter’s parental advice is rooted in science. According to SleepFoundation.org, an arm of the National Sleep Foundation, using technology in the final hour before bedtime is physiologically and psychologically stimulating when your body should be doing exactly the opposite and preparing to rest.
Luckily, Messenger Kids by Facebook can help kids stick to a healthy bedtime routine. “On the Messenger Kids app you actually have a sleep mode that parents can set,” Sarah Chang, a spokesperson for Messenger Kids said on the panel. With sleep mode, parents can decide which days of the week they want to enforce sleep mode as well as start and end times when kids should or should not be using the app.
Sign a Pledge
When kids become old enough to understand how they’re using devices and technology, it can be empowering for them to sign a pledge and agree to certain parameters around their digital behavior. A pledge can also help parents flesh out the do’s and don’ts they want their kids to abide by when it comes to technology.
“When my son got old enough to use social media, we did have him sign a pledge,” Jacqui Boland, ceo and founder of Red Tricycle, said on the panel of her 13-year-old. “With kids you have to explain as much as possible the consequences if they break the rules and we have to create that ourselves and draft up every rule we could think of.”
If drafting a pledge from scratch seems daunting, this is another place where the Messenger Kids app can help parents set their kids up for healthy habits with technology. On the panel, Chang mentioned that Messenger Kids has education flows and a pledge that kids review with their parents before they start using the app. The Messenger Kids pledge includes things like “be kind, be respectful be safe and have fun,” she added.
Model Good Digital Behavior for Them
It’s not enough to tell your kids about the healthy digital habits you expect them to follow, parents should also model these things themselves.
“I actually really talked the talk for a long time but didn’t walk the walk to the point where that my 5-year-old knows the American Dad theme song and I had no idea he was paying attention to me watching it,” Carter said. “So I had to start walking the walk and censoring what I was watching.”
Modeling the digital behavior you want your kids to follow doesn’t mean you have to stop using technology the way you want to altogether — but you should make a concerted effort to set a good example for them. Kids, especially young kids, are master imitators. They will mimic the behavior they see regularly. And then as they get older, you can have more conversations with them about what it means to engage responsibly with technology.
Spend Quality Digital Time Together
With everyone spending more time at home now, it’s natural to spend more time connected to technology. And yes, that includes your children. Rather than letting your children spend time alone with technology, the parents on the panel had several suggestions for ways to spend quality digital time together and using technology for connection.
Carter has turned dinner time into family movie time with her kids. “We’ll sit at the dinner table and watch a movie or a show and have a conversation about it and it’s actually quality time; it’s not just mindless entertainment,” Carter said. “I understand that tech is very engrained into our lives, but let’s use it form a place of positivity.”
At Red Tricycle, Boland said her team has started recommending “quality time with your kids online touring the penguin exhibit, looking at the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, looking at eagles in national parks — and it is really good quality time.”
Another way families can spend quality digital time together is connecting with one another on Messenger Kids, which has built-in activities for quality screen time. “Even if you’re playing a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, you have to invite a family member or friend to come and play with you to activate the game and play with them,” Chang said. “We also have great video filters and masks that you can use while you’re chatting with your family and friends so it’s really built around this idea of active connectivity.”
This article was created by SheKnows for Messenger Kids by Facebook.