As a writer, I've been covering technology for well over two decades. In fact, both of my kids—my son Cole is 20 and daughter Ava is 17—have been online since before Google morphed from a geeky PhD research project at Stanford into the mighty search engine whose name now doubles as a verb.
During that time I've interviewed hundreds of tech industry players about how to raise kids in the information age. Yet I'm still asking: How much screen time is okay? No single answer has outlived even one of our cell phones. But if there's anything I've learned, it's that this is truly one of the Big Questions of parenting. And as with, say, teaching morals or proper nutrition, a broad-view perspective is far superior to a simplistic approach.
Officially, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents cap screen time for kids over age 2 at two hours per day. Ad infinitum media coverage of this has inarguably fanned the flames of discussion among conscientious moms and dads who feel obligated to meet that strict standard, even as more and more of our day-to-day lives have become screen based. Enforcing the limit without a seemingly endless loop of arguments, threats and tears seemed akin to the parenthood Holy Grail.
A Healthy Media Diet
Since 2013, the AAP is focusing less on an exact amount of screen time, emphasizing a healthy media diet instead. "Think of it as creating a healthy plate of food," says Marjorie Hogan, MD, FAAP, co-author of the AAP policy. "Have some social media, games, entertainment, a little TV, active play and a helping of school. But don't sit in front of that plate all day and night."
All things being equal, it's a nice analogy. However, teaching kids broad-brushstroke concepts of nutrition is relatively straightforward. The overarching premise of consuming a "healthy media diet" is much more nuanced and complex.
First we have to teach the distinction between passive versus interactive entertainment. Then there's communicating how to distinguish valuable, worthwhile content from the steady stream of crap that feeds consumerism, unrealistic body images or general negativity. Once they can reasonably capably distinguish good from bad, kids have to learn to manage their time and regulate the not-insignificant urge to ignore dreary real-life responsibilities such as homework and chores in favor of endless viral memes and goofy GIFs. Somehow we have to try to help them understand the long-term consequences of taking and sharing risqué photos, how mean words can impact others, and what it really means when someone clicks "like." It's a lot to cover, and it's different for each kid.
We Don't Know What We Don't Know
Now back to the nutrition analogy. As adults, we generally know more about food than our kids do. This is often not true of the Internet—in fact, according to a survey from the Family Online Safety Institute, more than half of parents (54%) admitted their child taught them something about using their smartphone or tablet.
We also have a reasonably good idea what kids eat, which is not necessarily true of the technology they consume. If they don't want us to know—which is typical of tweens and teens—all parties are aware that they can easily and capably keep us in the dark.
After all, when children are young, we heed experts' advice to position the computer in plain sight, such as in the family room. (Often we even sit with our kids in front of the screen.) But as they get older, they get their own phones, tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, whatever—and use them away from our watchful gaze, pretty much wherever they please. In other words, what they're doing slips away from us. Even if you insist they do homework where you can keep an eye on things—still a good idea—it's hard to know whether that's a Facebook study group on screen or a Facebook bullying session. Is that YouTube video a distraction from homework or is it actually part of the assignment? Is that game a waste of time or a great way to learn math? It's easy to make a wrong assumption and end up unfairly calling them out. Once you do that, they'll start to edge away into locked phones and technical subterfuge.
"The parent role is vague," Hogan admitted when I asked her for advice on how to fill this healthy media diet prescription. "Be a good role model and sit down and talk to them about it."
That's a reasonable start, but I also want a safety net. My kids are smart and I think I've taught them well. Still, youthful mistakes can and do happen. I don't want to spy on them, read every text or demand their Snapchat passwords. But that's exactly what some parents resort to when a child exhibits worrisome behavior.
There's parental control software, but much of it requires that I install it on every device my kids use—which currently includes six computers in my house, plus their smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles. All of them are web-connected. Even if I weren't certain in my heart of hearts that my kids could easily hack around anything I would install, using that much software is not realistic. I'm not alone in this thinking: Only 36% of parents say they have ever used parental control software.
But the people who create technology— now that they have kids of their own—are starting to take these problems seriously and come up with solutions (see "5 Smart Monitoring Tools") that address the core challenges of parenting in the information age. "My oldest daughter was turning 4," explains Robert Reichmann, founder of VISR, the company behind the VISR app, which alerts parents to issues children face online. "She opened my eyes to the fact that our kids are living in a different world. Very young, they're exposed to issues, challenges and decisions they can't be expected to make. We want to give parents insight about what's going on so they can intervene in a way that builds trust rather than undermines it." I'm confident that one or more of these technical solutions will evolve to do exactly that for a generation of moms, dads, tweens and teens who have been living in a virtual Wild West.
5 Smart Monitoring Tools
We parents need real-time info on what kids are up to online—more and better than we can get with just our own eyes and ears. Keep these options in mind.
→ Bark Bark.us,$9 a month, after a free one-month trial
Sign up for Bark, invite your tweens and teens to register their social networks, text messaging and email accounts, then let the software keep an eye on things. You don't know their passwords and are only alerted in case of potential trouble, such as conversation that seems risqué or messaging that looks like bullying or depression. This way, when you do interact, you'll have a clue what's going on. It will even work if they're using Wi-Fi.
→ Circle with Disney Meetcircle.com, $99
Pair the state-of-the-art box to your home network and install the app to control the signal. Tell it which devices belong to the kids, then set rules: Filter content by age, designate a nightly cutoff time and hit "pause" if you want to just shut off the Internet. The Insights feature shows you who does what online, so your parent-kid conversations about online activity can be based on actual data, not random assumptions. Add Circle Go ($10 a month) and all your kids' cell phone settings remain intact outside of the home network, whether they're on a different WiFi or using their regular cell service.
→ Luma Getluma.com, $399 for a three-pack
Plug this new kind of Wi-Fi router into your modem, position the cute boxes strategically around the house and your signal will be fast, secure and free of dead spots. Parental controls, including filters, are managed through the Luma mobile app.
→ Starry Station Starry.com/station, $300
Forget the mysteriously blinking lights on a typical router that tell you nothing—this sleek, super-fast unit operates via touchscreen and makes troubleshooting easy. Sophisticated parental controls are accessible right from the screen.
→ VISR Visr.co, free
VISR monitors social networks for late-night use, location tagging in posts, bullying, sexting and many other topics. The idea here is that you can't teach what you don't know. Future plans include more insight into trends, mood and other potential indicators.