Everyday I read something that leads me to believe that tech devices are dramatically affecting our kids’ normal social, sexual, intellectual, and emotional development. What I’m most amazed by, frankly, is how uninvolved we parents tend to be in the online lives of our middle schoolers. Our tweeners tend to seem much more savvy than they actually are: They may have technical skills, but usually they don’t have the social skills they need to navigate the sophisticated online and social media world.
Smartphones, tablets, and computers are powerful, wonderful devices that I can hardly imagine living without. But our kids get addicted to them easily, and they often use them inappropriately.
Middle schoolers are not old enough (or developmentally ready) to have as much freedom online as they often do these days. Think of these devices like cars: Before kids can drive them alone, they need to know the rules. They need clear roads with bright lines painted for them to show them where—and where not—to go.
In order for parents to teach these rules to our kids, many of us need a crash course in them ourselves—consider it a new technologies boot camp. If your middle schooler seems to be spending more time on Facebook or texting than she is in-person with her friends, this boot camp is for you.
Step 1: Make it clear which SPACES are appropriate for device and computer use.
Just because we can take a laptop into the bathroom does not mean that this is an appropriate thing to do. These are the places where it is typically NOT OKAY to use a computer, tablet, or smartphone:
● The car, unless it is planned for a long road trip. If your kids are used to being on their devices while you shuttle them around town, re-introduce them to the car window. Encourage them to learn the names of the streets you are driving on. Talk to them. If they complain about being bored, remind them that boredom is not a health hazard, but technology overuse is.
● Bedrooms and bathrooms. If you think your middle schooler is mature enough to have a computer in their bedroom, read Catherine Steriner-Adair’s book The Big Disconnect. Believe me, it can forever change their development. Laptops, phones, and tablets get charged in the kitchen at our house.* (I do let my daughter take a smartphone into her room after school and before dinnertime, where she uses it to talk and text. She is not allowed to use it for Internet access in her bedroom. This means that kids do homework in our house in public spaces, not in their bedrooms.)
● Public spaces where others can overhear a conversation, like restaurants, school, or any place where someone is helping you, like in a check-out line at a store. Remind kids that when we are texting or talking on the phone, we are ignoring the people around us, which is especially rude when they are helping us with something.
Step 2: Identify appropriate TIMES to be on a device.
For example, here are some times when it is NOT appropriate in our household to be texting, snapchatting, Facebooking,** playing an electronic game, emailing, etc:
● While they are doing homework. I am aware that most middle-schoolers chat while doing homework and are better at multitasking than us middle-agers. But the ability to FOCUS (you know, do just one thing at a time) is a core life-skill that more and more of our kids are failing to develop.
● During meals. There is usually nothing so important that it can’t wait 20 minutes. Daily family meals actually ARE important to kids’ development, and need to be accorded that importance.
● During bedtime routines. In the evening all devices can be set to their “do not disturb” setting and put in their chargers (iPhones and iPads can be set to do this automatically) a half hour before bedtime.
Why 30 minutes? Because the low-energy blue light emitted by our tablets and smartphones stimulates chemical messengers in our brains that make us more alert, and suppresses others (like melatonin) that help us fall asleep. Changing electronic reader settings to have a black background may help if your kids like to read before bed on a tablet or electronic reader.
Step 3: Make it clear what is private, and what is not.
Here is the biggest ever newsflash for most seventh and eighth graders: They are not entitled to privacy in their texts, emails, Facebook or Instagram posts, etc. The computers, phones, and tablets they use are, in fact, owned by their school or their parents.
As such, schools and parents are accountable for everything that happens on them. This means parents have a responsibility to control all of the passwords on the devices they own, and they have the right to read all posts created or received on said devices.
Why? Two reasons. First, because everything that kids do online is much more public and permanent than they typically think. If they want to write a private love note, they should use a pen and the US Mail. If they want to have a private conversation, they should do it in person. Make it clear what is private (their journal, for example, or their bedroom) and what is not: all online communications.
The second reason that middle-schoolers are not entitled to privacy online is that kids usually behave differently—and by that I mean better—when they know that they are being watched by adults. They are emboldened by independence, and once they do something risky or against the rules online and get away with it, they are likely to do it again.
So collect your middle-schooler’s passwords, and USE THEM. Log in and read their posts and texts. (See Step 4 if you see something you don’t like.) Insist that they accept any and all requests to connect via social media with relatives and trusted adults: This can be a part of the village that helps keep an eye on your kids.
Step 4: Teach kids to seek help when things go awry—and have a plan yourself as a parent when they do.
Inevitably, our kids will be spammed, flamed, and even bullied online or via email. And they may make major mistakes themselves that have deep consequences. First, be clear about what you see as bad online behavior, and establish clear consequences should that bad behavior come from your child.
Second, teach them that their how they respond when something goes wrong usually matters a lot, so their first response should be to get help from you or their school. Establish an “amnesty” policy with them so that should they realize they (or one of their close friends) has made a mistake, they feel they can seek adult help repairing any damage.
If you aren’t sure how you’ll respond when things go wrong, or what situations middle-schoolers typically deal with online that you might need to help them with, take the time to read the last couple of chapters of Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect.
Step 5: Actively teach kids to use their devices and social media accounts as a force for good.
On balance these technologies are good. They represent progress, not the death and destruction of our youth. But kids need to be taught how to use these sophisticated tools to make them happier, and to make the world a better place. (For ideas about how to do that, see this post about How to use Facebook to Increase Your Happiness.)
Perhaps this goes without saying, but kids will do what we do, not what we tell them to do, so the most important part of this boot camp is probably modeling these behaviors. When we text our work colleagues during dinner, we teach our family that work is more important than them. When we check Facebook during a red light in the car, we teach our kids that boredom is intolerable, and that it is safe to be online while driving.
But here’s the thing: We can also model positive behavior. We can turn our devices off, and keep them off at significant moments in our day. When we are online, we can post inspiring quotations and send our friends gratitude emails. We can text pictures of the kids to grandparents. And these technologies can make us more efficient (rather than just more distracted), and that efficiency can buy us more time with our middle-schoolers—who are readying themselves to leave our nest at any moment.
*A tangent that will make me seem like a luddite, but I can’t help throwing in: My kids use old-fashioned alarm clocks to wake up in the morning. One of them uses the “clock-radio” that I got for Christmas one year when I was in grade school. This in and of itself is amazing: My kids can’t believe something electronic was ever designed to last more than a couple of years and is still operable 30 years later.
**Note: My kids are not allowed to have Facebook accounts until it is legal for them to do so, at age 13. They have tons of friends and are somehow surviving socially being the “only kids in their entire school” who don’t have Facebook accounts. (Perhaps because many of their friends actually don’t have active Facebook accounts.)
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