"When can I get a smartphone?"
"If I stop the game now, I'll never get to the next level."
"I'm the only one in my class without Facebook!"
"Other people text way more than I do."
As a family therapist, I've heard parents report statements like these thousands of times. Parenting a child or teen today requires an advanced degree in navigating, negotiating, and understanding media and technology. As much as they can be an invaluable resource for your child's growing mind, media and technology can also be debilitating forces. Obtaining that advanced degree involves surveying the options, identifying the pros and cons, and setting age-appropriate media and technology boundaries. Doing these things will help you "discern what is the good" (Romans 12:2).
Visual stimulants (TV, video games, movies, Internet, phones and other gadgets, and social networking sites), when used appropriately, have the power to provide early readiness for learning; educational enrichment; opportunities for relational connectedness; and broadened exposure to entertainment, the arts, and social issues. Media can also be a useful tool in teaching, training, and engaging your child.
The harmful effects of visual stimulants can range from poor school performance to violent and aggressive behavior, and diminished physical activity to distorted sexual and body image content. We've long known that children's brains need to interact with their external environment in order to grow fully. It's possible that many of our children may be suffering attention and other learning difficulties because their brains aren't experiencing enough fine and gross motor development that comes from physical movement and engaging with the environment around them.
Studies have explored the relationship between visual media and a child or adolescent's sleep, learning, and memory. For example, there's clear evidence that prolonged video game playing disrupts sleep, which, in turn, affects memory and learning. Other studies have connected prolonged exposure to visual stimulants and deteriorated verbal and cognitive performance.
Early in life, visual stimulants compete for a child's developing mind. A media-savvy parent discovers how to use these to his or her advantage. In our family, I hold off allowing our kids to see movies if they haven't read the book. I remember racing to finish reading Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (HarperCollins) with my daughter to make the May 2008 release of the film.
She disciplined herself to finish homework quickly so that we could squeeze in an extra half hour to finish another chapter or two at night. We devoured those pages and couldn't wait to compare and contrast the book with the film. The visual of the film helped reinforce the content and message of the story.
Occasionally, our family hosts Wii nights at our house and compete in anything from Olympic track-and-field events to baseball. It's become a way for us to engage with one another and be active. Although we use a video game as a means of staying connected, we experience joy spending time together.
Equally so, I use technology to our family's advantage when I travel. It's never been easier to stay connected to my kids when I'm in another state. My daughter sends me email updates with photos of her weekend. My sons love to make and send videos to report on their basketball games. Furthermore, we video chat from state-to-state. When we can look at one another as opposed to just talking on the phone, we don't feel so distanced from one another.
Setting balanced media boundaries
1. Monitor time
Kids should never spend more time in the virtual world than in reality. Simply put, your children should never spend more time playing video or computer games than engaging in active play. They should spend more time having real conversations with their friends rather than through Facebook or texting.
2. Get online
Parents of preteens should have access to any social networking sites on which they choose to let their kids participate or explore. You should know their passwords at all times, and let them know that you can and will check them. Require that they "friend" you on Facebook, and let them know you check the Internet and device history on any computers or gadgets in your home.
3. Model limits
Pay attention to the amount of time you spend watching TV, checking email, surfing the Internet, or chatting on Facebook. You can talk all day about setting limits, but you need to be modeling them in your own life.
4. Bombard kids (with information)
Education and conversation are your best weapons against pornography and Internet dangers. Consider having your kids sign a media contract that outlines the terms of having technology in your home.
5. Avoid violence
Violent video games that reward antisocial aggression, such as "Grand Theft Auto" or "Doom," shouldn't be permitted in your home. Playing violent first-person video games has a substantially more toxic effect than watching equally violent TV programs. Neither is healthy, but children are even more susceptible to behavioral influences when they're active participants.
6. Teach literacy
Just because preteens can use media and technology doesn't mean they're effective at critically analyzing and evaluating the messages they receive. This is called media literacy. A child's ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy can be developed through parental guidance.
7. Parent in community
Sit down with other parents you trust and talk openly about what ages you feel are appropriate to introduce different stimulants, such as a cellphone. At what age would you feel comfortable with your child watching a particular show? What are a reasonable number of texts to allow per month?
Parenting in community layers more support for those times when your son or daughter says things like, "I'm the only one," or "No other parent." You can respond with, "That's interesting, because I know that at the Johnsons' house, the Allens' house, and the Whitakers' house, they've decided to wait on that as well."
There's no doubt that media can be harmful just as there's no arguing that media can be useful. The key to navigating this complicated maze is for parents to stay educated, informed, engaged, and aware. If you're strategic, you can leverage these powerful forces as invaluable tools.