Even before their first birthday, most kids these days are intimately familiar with images and entertainment presented to them via screens. Whether it’s the TV, a tablet computer or a smart phone, screen time is almost an inevitability for youngsters, especially if they have older siblings – hence the reason parents need more information and tips on kids and screen time, including answers to the #1 burning question about it: How much is enough?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under age two, and limiting an older child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day. While this system may fit into the lives of preschoolers, these guidelines must be adjusted as kids grow older. And this isn’t even to touch on the debate about “bad” screen time vs. “good” screen time, although certainly a case could be made that a toddler watching Signing Time DVDs or a middle schooler watching a documentary about healthy eating habits is more valuable than time spent watching meaningless cartoons.
Looking to better manage the role of high-tech devices in your kids’ lives? Here are five tips to help your family keep an eye on screen time
Establish Ground Rules
Kids need to understand that time spent in front of high-tech toys shouldn’t be provided as an inalienable right, but rather earned as privilege.
Specify the exact days, times and circumstances when it’s okay for your kids to be on the computer , using the smartphone or playing video games. Are homework and chores done? Is their usage interfering with a family event? Establish these guidelines ahead of time so there are no questions as to what is acceptable in your family.
It’s also a good idea to start your quest to limiting screen time at a young age. Allowing a half hour a day of tech-related screen time for preschoolers, separate from TV watching, works for many of the modern parents we’ve spoken to.
As kids grow older, many families push the daily screen time allowance up to one or two hours and add or subtract time as a reward or punishment for good or bad behavior. Some families choose to lump all screen time together, while others may specifically call out TV time, computer time or video game time. Beginning at a fixed base level, such as an hour per day, can make a good starting point, giving you some wiggle room to add or subtract time based on children’s behavior.
Consider Common Areas and Curfews
Where possible, make sure all devices and Internet connections are located in common areas of the house. Doing so not only allows you to keep abreast of online interactivity, usage patterns and who kids are interacting with as well as how. It also lets you be present when devices are used, monitor playtime and keep kids (or Dad) from secretly sneaking online to play World of Warcraft at 3AM on a school night.
Setting an electronic curfew in your house may also help curtail late night use and improve your family’s overall health by encouraging everyone to sleep when they should. Choose a time such as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., depending on your kids’ ages, after which there’s no more use of electronics. Create a common docking station for all devices in your bedroom, where all digital devices must be checked in before bed time, and assign a curfew for each one of them.
Set Device-Free Times
Also, make sure to set aside device-free times that the entire family can spend together. Parenting experts such as Richard Rende, PhD, associate (research) professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, suggest that the use of technology isn’t necessarily what’s dangerous for kids as an impediment to healthy development. Instead, problems can arise if all the technology and connecting is done at the expense of other proven developmentally healthy and necessary activities.
Many parents require kids to experience one hour of outside time for every one hour of video game or screen time. We encourage you to experiment and find what’s right for your family.
Set a Good Example
Setting a good example is potentially more important than establishing these rules. Make sure you don’t get caught up dedicating your focus to your phone or other screens over your kids.
Whether it’s at the dinner table, or during a weekly Friday night movie or game night, being present and engaged for your kids will ensure a more engaging and rewarding family activity, and show them that it’s okay to disconnect from their screens and connect with others.
Translate Screen Time into Real Life
Play along and engage with your kids about the activities they’re doing on-screen. They’ll love telling you about what they’re watching, and treasure the time you are able to play together. Many parents would love to chat with kids about books, but fail to see how games, apps and TV shows also engage their imagination.
If possible, translate the games and activities kids are doing in real life. If they are enjoying an alphabet tracing app, prepare some worksheets that highlight the same skills. If they’re playing Angry Birds (or watching you), set up your own Angry Birds course in the house. If they’re watching Dr. Who, consider working on a project based on a theme of the show. Screen time’s positive or negative effects are often all what you make of them.
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By now, most families have embraced the idea of keeping the family computer in a common area as one way to monitor their kids’ online activity, but laptops and smartphones have made the web accessible virtually anywhere. Since it’s a smart idea for parents to keep tabs on where their kids are going online, the reality of today’s mobile generation is that parents need technological help. While we recommend conversation and open dialogue above all else, part of your family’s Internet agreement should also be that you will learn how to track and monitor kids’ online activity, including installing software that will provide access to records of all their Internet searches. That said, by all means, be up-front with your kids about this plan, as you don’t want them to think you are spying them, and also because many times the simple knowledge that their parents will be checking in is enough of a deterrent to keep children from going where they shouldn’t.
Even though many computers and web browsers come with these features built in, we recommend checking out these additional programs that provide monitoring and other safeguards to help kids have a positive online experience.
Web Watcher bills itself as an online chaperone, and encourages users to think of its software as a parenting tool. It serves not only as a block against and filter for inappropriate websites, but records Internet and general computer usage, giving parents the option to block access to sites or activities based on what their kids are doing. Web Watcher costs about a hundred bucks, however, so peace of mind won’t come cheap.
As one of the best-known brands of parental control and monitoring software, Net Nanny not only allows for tracking and viewing of kids’ online activity across all the popular social networks, but it also provides tools for positive and healthy Internet experiences for kids. Utilizing Net Nanny’s timers, filters and porn blockers helps parents enjoy knowing that are kids are protected beyond just what they’re finding on their own in their monitoring reports. There’s also NetNanny for mobile devices, too – an Android version is currently available, and an iOS version is coming soon. Net Nanny costs $40 per year per computer and $20 per year per mobile device and makes a good beginning point if you’re looking to learn how to track and monitor kids’ online activity, and enjoy some control over Internet interactions and searches.
Cybersitter offers a great value for families, with the ability to install it on up to three computers for $40 a year. You can create your own custom block and allow lists, record e-mails and Facebook activity, and also set certain times when specific sites can be accessed (and when they can’t). Some of the controls and features require parents to be more computer literate than the average person, but if you’re trying to keep up with your kids’ activity online, you need to be willing to expand your tech-savviness.
The Norton Online Family suite of products allows families to set time limits, filter web content and receive reports and summaries of usage and activity. While the full range of services is only $30 a year, there’s also a free version which provides basic monitoring and limiting capabilities. If you’re looking for a great way to start monitoring to get a feel for it, Norton Online Family is a great option.
Designed for homes and small businesses, eBlaster captures incoming and outgoing e-mail, texts and chats from your PC, and can send you instant updates. It also monitors activity across social networks such as Facebook and can send you daily updates (or hourly if you choose). With a cost of $100, eBlaster seems best suited for those who suspect there may be a problem, but seems a little strong if you’re just trying to keep an eye on your kids.
Mobicip has emerged as a leader in smartphone monitoring and web filtering, allowing for broad blocking, filtering and parental controls, all of which can apply to all your family’s mobile devices. And better yet, settings can be easily tweaked from a computer. Mobicip offers online reports of activity and time logs, and can also send these out via scheduled e-mails. Basic filtering is available for a one-time fee of $5, and the full suite of features costs $10 per year on top of that.