“Parenting in the Digital Age”

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Over the last decade, our evolving digital culture has changed how most of our families operate and created a new universal parenting struggle.

As parents, we need to be up-to-speed on the latest techniques to safeguard our children and have strategies for managing digital behaviors.  Below is a summary of the strategies and tactics that Dr. Adam Pletter shared with parents at our November Lunch and Learn, including how to set up a technology contract, how to keep your children safe watching TV, and how to protect children by combining basic parental controls with proven behavior modification techniques.

Dr. Pletter, a child psychologist in his 18th year of practice, is an expert on digital-age parenting, specializing in digital use and addiction. For those of us who feel like complete failures at this challenge, even Dr. Pletter admitted that it’s an almost impossible task.

The problem parents face in our brave new digital world can hardly be overstated. In Dr. Pletter’s memorable phrase, “we are immigrants to this world and our children are natives”. Most of us were already adults by the time the internet and its associated technology came along. As we struggle toward a basic understanding, our kids move effortlessly through expertise. We may know what’s best for them, but in the online world we don’t always know how to point them toward it. And pointing them away from what’s harmful can be even harder!

Dr. Pletter stressed that our kids’ crazed technology usage is actually quite normal for their age. Clicking on new content activates the prefrontal cortex, an emotion center in the brain that’s overdeveloped in adolescents. Their developmental stage is based on their need to seek new information about how to manage their lives, so the excitement of “unwrapping” new information is an especially powerful driver. What’s more, these technologies aren’t going away. There’s no hiding our kids from them! Our task is to teach and guide them as they learn how to manage it.

Way back when, we worried that our friends might be hanging out without us. Today’s teenagers can watch on their phones any number of friends livestreaming social events no one invited them to. Forget wondering whether your friends badmouth you behind your back – in the digital world of today, when virtually all social media platforms have a livestream function, a teen can watch them do it in real time! And the escapism of Dungeons and Dragons and other afterschool group games has morphed into 36-hour Fortnite sessions where each player sits alone in his own room.

It’s no surprise that all this technology can wreak havoc on our kids’ mental health, putting them at high risk of depression, anxiety, tech addiction, sleep deprivation, cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content and feelings of vulnerability.

Of course, Dr. Pletter pointed out, technology brings huge gifts alongside all its problems. GPS, reunions with old friends, clickable contact with family members around the world – who would want to give up any of that? The challenge of parenting in the digital age is to make the tradeoff into a positive one for our kids.

As always with parenting, Dr. Pletter stressed that the key is parent-child dialogue. We can help our kids take control of their digital lives by talking with them about what’s okay and what isn’t – and by listening to them about what they want and what they experience. Make sure your kids understand that their digital footprint is permanent! That mean-spirited comment or inappropriate picture they posted on Facebook in junior high can come back to haunt them when they apply for college. And just like in real life, be sure they know not to share any personal information, including passwords, and to be alert and ready to hit delete or block when Stranger Danger shows up on their social media feed or in a group chat.

Dr. Pletter offered some more great guidelines for digital-age parenting. His “#1” recommendation is a parent-child contract, ideally negotiated prior to your child getting a phone or other access to technology.  If you are giving your child a phone for the first time, remember you don’t have to allow them access to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, etc.  You can start with 1 and then they can earn their way to more.  Dr. Pletter’s 5 keys to any contract are:

  1. This is an adult device, we are giving it to you to use. 
  2. Listed guidelines about where the device can be (e.g. not in bedrooms at night) a must!
  3. App passwords are private to you AND SHARED with parents.
  4. Prior permission required before any download.
  5. More access/permissions/apps will be earned with trusted behavior.

In addition to the contract, Dr. Pletter discussed limiting your teen’s online activity via family sharing features such as “Ask to Buy” on the iPhone and limitations for digital access and blocking mechanisms, using Disney’s Circle (for a discount enter [email protected]). In iOS 12 there is now a way to limit screen time with Apple’s “Screen Time” Feature.  He also recommends Common Sense Media to get reviews for age-appropriateness for apps and movies. He also recommends calling Apple’s tech support (1-800-MY-APPLE) when you need it.

Ultimately, Dr. Pletter said that the matter comes down to proactive parenting and child behavior. Begin with clear expectations of behaviors and rules, as laid out in the contract. Set limits that are enforceable, including through technological tools like parental controls. And be ready to recognize good behavior in your kids, so that they can earn more access to the digital world and therefore satisfy their need for the excitement of the “unwrapping” impulse. And if you need more help, check out Dr. Pletter’s online resources, including his full online course at iParent.com.  For a 50% discount on his course, enter ‘Studypro50’.