If you’re like most parents, chances are that you have some anxiety about your kids’ digital lives and how much time they spend in front of screens. According to a 2018 survey of American families, technology overuse has become the number one concern parents have for their teens.
But helping children maintain a healthy media diet goes beyond simply curbing their device usage. In 2016, the American Association of Pediatrics backed down from their two-hour-a-day screen time guidelines. They now propose a more tailored approach, suggesting that parents can be “media mentors” and not just time cops.
These more flexible recommendations don’t mean that parents are any less anxious about tech. I’ve had many struggles over technology with my own kids, who are just exiting their teen years. As part of my research on how kids interact digitally, I’ve also talked to many parents about what it might mean to be a media mentor—a parent who engages and guides in addition to monitoring and setting limits. Here are three steps to help you make the transition from being a time cop to media mentor.
Step 1: Listen
One of the complaints that kids have about parents is that we don’t listen. On top of this, we often have less experience with video games and social media. From our kids’ point of view, not only don’t we listen, we simply don’t get it.
We don’t have to love everything our kids do online, but active listening is the foundation to building trust and credibility. The first step to becoming a media mentor is suspending judgment and taking time to appreciate why our kids are so involved in their digital interests.
What appears to be a solitary and disconnected screen activity is often about friendships, exploration and creative activity. In a major study of video games and kids, researchers found that boys who don’t play games are more likely to be socially isolated. What looks like phone “addiction” is more often than not deep connections with friends for your sociable teen.
You may find that your child is immersed in YouTube videos and online games that aren’t the most interesting or productive. It may be time to redirect their attention, but it might be an exploration of a budding passion. I fretted about my son spending endless hours with Minecraft, but I later discovered him designing epic castles and building a binary calculator out of blocks that actually worked. Or take the example of young Adilyn learning how to dubstep from YouTube videos.
Step 2: Connect
Experts recommend that parents “co-view” TV with their kids to boost understanding and stay connected. The value of joint media engagement extends to digital games and online media too. Just like board games, video games can be a way to bond as a family. Researchers Elisabeth Hayes and Sinem Siyahhhan have created a series of “impact guides” to help parents maximize the learning potential in video games.
Even if you aren’t a gamer yourself, you can support your child’s gaming interest like you might a sport. I played games with my kids when they were small, but by the time my son hit middle school I couldn’t keep up with his games. I shifted to being a supporter and cheerleader, celebrating his wins and encouraging him to take on more challenging games.
With social media, connecting doesn’t mean monitoring everything your teen does online. That can be stressful and unhelpful for both the teen and the parent. If you’ve built trust through active listening, conversations about social media can be the same as other parent-child friendship talk.
Social media can also keep families connected. Texting offers new ways to stay connected as a family as we juggle schedules. Consider a family Slack channel for sharing. I’m always on my kids’ case to share the memes and fun videos they find online. They might roll their eyes, but mostly they are amused by my interest and the ensuing hilarity.
Step 3: Guide
We can’t be credible guides if we haven’t established trust and connection, and if we don’t model good digital habits ourselves. A common suggestion is to embrace device-free dinners and to stop being a distracted parent! But while these are reasonable cautions, the outcry over distracted parenting can often turn into unhelpful stress and parent shaming.
Being a media mentor doesn’t mean you have to model perfection. It can also be about recognizing shared struggles and embracing shared pleasures. I’ve interviewed many parents about how they handle digital media in their home. Amy Jo Kim, game designer and author of “Game Thinking,” recognizes her own struggles with time management and has an open dialogue about this with her daughter. They establish shared family rituals to get both of them off their screens. This could be a “bright shiny object” like going to the gym, or playing loud music for 20minutes for cleaning the house together.
Guiding kids to productive and healthy digital engagement can also involve recruiting help from digital experts. Common Sense Media offers a range of family-friendly reviews for digital platforms and products. My nonprofit, Connected Camps, also offers tips for connected parenting, like review of kid-friendly Minecraft servers and coding apps. We also train college and high school students who are tech and game experts to lead online camps and clubs in coding and digital making, and being good digital citizens.
If you’re reading this article, most likely you have concerns about your kids’ digital lives. But it also means you probably deserve a reminder that you’re probably already being a connected parent and media mentor.