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.
Although it may never achieve the dominance and global popularity of Facebook, Google+ (Plus) remains an important and influential social network simply based on the fact that it’s from Google. When the company announced a suite of upgrades and design changes for Google Plus in April 2012, it boasted 170 million accounts, although many of those are surely users who have never used the service or visited it only once.
Google Plus allows you to choose which fields and information about you are searchable and that may appear in search results. You can choose what is available to specific individuals, circles and everyone.
You can also control who you want to receive notifications from whenever someone shares a post with you, mentions you, invites you to a game or hangout or shares a photo with you. You can keep this activity within your circle, or choose to allow Extended Circles or Anyone to be able to include you send you these notifications.
Circles are at the heart of the Google Plus, and are the groups you’ve set up to share different content with. Even though you’ve given each of these Circles a name, these names are never visible to others, although the Circle itself and its members can be set to appear on your profile.
Circles are groups of people you share content with. The names of your circles and who you add to them are visible only to you, though you can set whether the list of people in all of your circles is visible in your public profile.
One setting you’ll want to make sure to be aware of is which of your circles is included in the “Your Circles” settings. The default is for everyone, but you can include only specific ones to be included in the blanket “Your Circles” sharing setting.
Within each post, you can choose who to make the information available to, whether it be everyone, your connections or certain Circles. But keep in mind that anyone that post is shared with can not only see all the comments in the post, but can also share it with others.
Make sure to tweak the settings for photos so you can control who can tag you and what information is provided. Set your settings here to determine who, if anyone, is allowed to tag you and whether or not you want to attach a location to your photos as they’re uploaded.
You can also tweak notifications to control whether or not you are notified when someone comments on a photo after you did or in a photo you were tagged in.
One other privacy setting for photos on Google Plus involves the use of Google’s facial recognition technology. You have the choice as to whether to allow Google to try and recognize your face and prompt people you know to tag you.
Each time you start or join a hangout, you check your appearance on screen and adjust your microphone and speaker volume, before you’re visible to others. Make sure you’re using common sense here, and if you’re joining a hangout that’s not just with friends and families, hide any identifiable or personal items from your background.