Screen time is not what it used to be. The digital devices our kids are using today may frustrate us, annoy us, or even scare us, but with some active and mindful parenting strategies, these devices can be used in a positive way. Though I’m a realist about the dangers that exist in the digital world, I also see unprecedented opportunities for our kids to create and learn and grow into thoughtful digital leaders.
Let’s look at a few different ways to change our perspective from fear to opportunity.
From Consumption to Creation
When we lump everything into simple “screen time,” we fail to make a crucial distinction between creativity and consumption. Is your kid sprawled out in front of the TV or bingeing on her favorite YouTuber? Or is she live-tweeting the presidential debate, composing a song using GarageBand, or building a hobby website?
If kids are using their screen time for creativity instead of idle consumption, that makes you think differently about imposing limits, doesn’t it? Assess what they are doing and what value it might bring. It might not be passive “zombie time,” but learning and stretching their imaginations instead. If your kid is composing a song or creating an ebook or producing a podcast, you may still urge her to do homework or power down to get some sleep, but you might feel more positively about their screen time.
From Silence to Savviness
As parents, we can cultivate social consciousness in our kids through media literacy. If used properly, screen time can be a conversation starter for big issues. Engage with them about stereotypes and other issues in the media they consume, without forcing the issue. For instance, instead of insisting, “that video game is sexist,” ask your kids what they think about the male and female characters, or about the way that characters of different ethnicities are portrayed.
Try to stock your media library with shows that portray diverse, positive role models. Can you find movies and books with strong female heroes and smart and nuanced characters of color? Unfortunately, it won’t be as easy as it should be—but there are some gems out there. Ask your librarian, and consult websites such as A Mighty Girl as a resource. (It’s not just for parents raising girls!)
If you simply hate a show, character, genre, or company—and especially if you prohibit it—tell your children why. “Because I said so” may have our parents’ methodology, but explaining your reasoning is likely to yield more buy-in from your kids, even when you aren’t looking over their shoulders.
From Passivity to Participation
The Web offers so many opportunities to have your child “try on” different roles and responsibilities. Why not have your kid take the lead on a family project?
Does your child enjoy watching cooking shows on TV? Using the wealth of instructional content on YouTube or the numerous foodie blogs, could he make dinner for the family? Have him pick some recipes, plan a healthy meal, and create a shopping list. Help him and encourage him along the way, but make sure that he feels ownership over the process. It’s an activity you can do together, and will foster an enormous sense of pride, for you and your kid!
What about planning a family trip? Let her direct—or at least participate in the research and planning. Give her some constraints (budget, time frame, etc.) so that she understands the limits, and set age-appropriate tasks, from looking into museums or nature hikes near your potential destination to calculating the mileage and budget for gas needed on the road trip.
Maybe your child would like to create a blog, Instagram feed, or use an app like Anchor to make an audio narrative dedicated to the trip. These are useful skills!
From Customer to Critic
Since today’s teens and tweens view media as participatory, take advantage of that! Use this inclination to teach them to make critical assessments of the content they are consuming. This will allow your child to discover and develop his or her own value set, and feel ownership over it. And of course, you will be there to help guide them along the way.
In today’s media environment, we don’t have to just accept apps and content as they are. Let’s get creative and make some changes! Have them create a parody of their least favorite TV show by directing and shooting a video of their own. First, get them to articulate why they don’t like it—with specific reasons. Challenge them on this. For instance, why is this app or video game so popular? Can they see it from a perspective other than their own?
Next, what could they do to make it better? Have them try to improve one of their video games. Could the objectives be clearer, or the plot line more (or less) direct? If this is too challenging, get them to focus on one particular facet—the main character, or one “level” in the game.
There are so many great possibilities for creative criticism.
From Slavery to Citizenship
Kids are facile with technology, and many parents feel their child is enslaved to something that they can’t keep up with. Don’t use this as an excuse. We can’t rely on others to teach our kids good digital citizenship. It’s up to us!
Limiting screen time may seem like the easy solution for those parents who are paralyzed by fear of this new digital world. But let’s face it, their world already looks a lot different than ours—and it will continue to do so. What’s more is that their future success depends on the digital life skills they acquire now.
You want to play a part in helping them navigate their world. That doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert on their apps. It really doesn’t matter what the next “big thing” is. Something will be next multi-player game (like Minecraft), the next augmented reality phenomenon (like Pokemon Go), or the next social platform (like Musical.ly). Your strategy will remain the same: teach them the critical skills and self-awareness that will serve them in their future.
Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, a guide for mentoring digital kids.