We are raising digital natives! Our school-aged kids have never experienced a time when handheld devices were a novelty. This information-saturated world of instant access and social media is their natural territory. However, parents and caregivers are still catching up to the crazy pace of change and cultural norms. It’s easy to fall back on rules about the “magic number” or “right age” for our kids’ online activity. However, many of us are starting to recognize the need to shift our mindset around our family’s digital health. How can we develop a more relational, connected approach to guide our kids to responsible, balanced digital health?

S.T.A.R.T – The 5 Rules of Thumb for Digital Health

Conversations over screen time, game content, and social media access can be challenging – especially if we refuse to adapt to the culture our kids experience daily. Our kids’ phones, video games, and tablets aren’t going anywhere. Their school experience relies heavily upon access to school-issued devices and online resources. No matter how challenging we find these changes in culture, we must find ways to positively connect with our kids and collaborate with them for safety and responsible digital navigation.

On a recent CreatingaFamily.org podcast, our guest from the non-profit Screen Sanity shared insights that will help parents and caregivers reframe our mindset. Here are the 5 Rules of Thumb for digital health with practical ideas to scaffold you as you seek to build trust, connection, and safety between you and your children.

S – Start with your own digital health.

As with any of these complex topics in parenting, implementing true and lasting change in our homes begins with us. We must be willing to examine our habits and attitudes toward the devices and technology in our daily life.

  • Am I in an unhealthy relationship with my phone?
  • Do I panic when I cannot find it?
  • Is it permanently attached to my hand?
  • What is the state of my relationship with television or my work laptop?
  • How am I keeping the technology in our home in its proper role?
  • Do I use it as a diversion that supplants in-person relationships?
  • How does my spouse feel about my device use? Or my kids?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but asking them – and answering honestly – will give insight for restructuring your relationships. This reframing may or may not be necessary. Still, you should consider it if you are concerned about your children’s relationship with technology.

T – Tables and Bedtimes

The idea of a device-free zone might be very challenging for your family. However, when you consider your usage against your family values of connectedness and meaningful relationship, it might become easier to establish screen-free zones.

Mealtimes (tables) and bedtime are critical opportunities for device-free zones where you leave time and space for valuable in-person interaction. These safe spaces tell your kids that they matter more than your social media, work emails, or mindless scrolling through puppy videos. Learning how to relate face-to-face will help build your child’s trust and confidence in their place in your family.

The added benefit is that putting our devices away an hour before falling asleep is reported to improve sleep quality. Reinforcing the cycle of your well-rested family, making wise choices, and building stronger connections can lead to excellent outcomes for our kids. The impacts can show up in their academic, social, and emotional health.

A – Accountability for your Digital Health

1. Robust filters & monitors

The first level of accountability you should consider for your family is robust internet filters and parental monitors. Several on the market will fit your family’s budget and safety needs. Do your research and take advantage of the free apps and other resources out there, too.

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2. Robust relationships.

Another level of accountability to consider is building a strong, open, and safe relationship with your children – and not just in the areas of technology use. Thoughtfully consider a couple of things:

  • How do my partner and I communicate to this child that we are safe?
  • How do we respond when our children struggle or fail?
  • What is my child’s first response when they don’t understand an experience?

Each child will need this emotional safety from you differently. You can tweak your messaging to meet your children’s styles of learning. It will help to be honest with your kids and tell them you are also learning about responsible digital health. They should know that you are watching their digital activity, just like you monitor their academic, emotional, or mental health needs. When you collaborate with them, you empower them and say their experiences matter. Being humble and teachable also models healthy accountability.

R – Ride, practice, drive

When our kids are young, they sit in the backseat of the car. They observe our actions and reactions in the driver’s seat. As they enter adolescence, they move up to the front passenger seat and gain a new perspective on how we drive our cars. Then, when it’s time to get a learning permit, they start practicing driving. Much of the instruction during this practice phase comes from our experiences and understanding of the laws of the road.

By the time they can earn a driver’s license, they should be well-equipped to handle the basics of driving solo to and from practice. That’s not to say they’ll enjoy perfect driving records forever – they’ll make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.

Adopted, foster, and kinship families have added layers to consider!

Consider your family’s digital health in much the same way. Start by inviting them to observe your daily tech habits. Let them peer over your shoulder at funny videos or crazy family text chains. Gradually, as they are capable, give them opportunities to practice. Let them listen to their favorite artist on the smart speaker in the kitchen. Incorporate firm limits, like starting out with a texting app without internet access, a locked-down phone, or a smartwatch with only safe family in the contacts. As they get their feet under them with these tools, consider slowly adding more access while continuing your supervision AND participation.

Staying connected through their slow learning curve communicates that they are safe and you “have their backs.” By the time they are ready to use a smartphone or other internet-connected device independently, you’ve worked alongside them to learn “the rules of the road.”

T – Time Well Spent

We often hear that we won’t remember the contract we landed or the awards we earned at work at the end of our lives. When our digital health is out of balance, we might regret missed conversations at birthday parties or our child’s solo in the school concert.

How we use our time and attention – online and in-person – with our children leaves a lasting impact. We get to choose what that impact will be. The key to time well spent is to remember that we have a finite window of time to influence our children’s perspectives:

  • How will we use that time?
  • Will our kids remember that our phones got more Facetime with us than they did?
  • Are we setting them up for healthy, balanced use of technology as they grow into adulthood?

Intentionally Building Digital Health

So many parents or caregivers are afraid to take on the challenges of responsible digital health with their kids. But these devices and our collective reliance on them aren’t going away. Instead, we can intentionally build healthy relationships with our kids and set our families up for successful digital health.

Which Rule of Thumb seems most natural to you? Which could use some attention? Tell us about it in the comments!

Image Credits: RDNE Stock project; cottonbro studio; Andrea Piacquadio