By Joan Goodchild
As a life coach and parenting educator, Laurie Wolk repeatedly hears the same two questions at speaking engagements:
“How do we deal with our children using social media?”
“I can’t get my kids off the phone. What do I do?”
“We need to stop focusing on the negative and how it’s ruining society, and let’s start working on the solutions,” Wolk said. “Let’s actually get our kids off their phone by doing things, rather than nagging them.”
A roadmap to smart and appropriate use of social media and devices — for parents and children — is the focus of her new book: Girls Just Want to Have Likes: How to Raise Confident Girls in the Face of Social Media Madness.
“Doing things” means pushing kids to re-engage and reenter real life, Wolk said. Too many children are spending much of their free time involved in virtual activities, like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and texting. The book is a back-to-basics look at parenting, examining ideas for what motivates kids and how to develop family connections. Step 1 is to drop the nagging, and engage in a conversation about the risks of device overuse.
“If you’re going to say no to phones in the room, which I advise, tell them it’s not because I don’t want you connecting with your bestie, but because those blue waves and red waves emitting from the tablet or phones are disruptive to your health and sleep patterns,” she said. “Explain to them the ‘why’ in the importance of getting some space [from devices] to get ready for bed. Because if it’s just nagging, no one is listening.”
Charting new parenting waters
Wolk said many parents are feeling overwhelmed by today’s influx of devices and social media because they have no guide in figuring out how to handle it. But, like anything else they are expected to master in life, children need rules and direction on device and social media use, too.
“We need to teach our kids the rules of the road. Parents are handing a phone to kids around fifth grade now and saying, ‘Have at it.’ You wouldn’t do that in other places,” she noted. “We need to teach them first what to do.”
Wolk said the best way to provide direction is a family media agreement, a clear set of rules and expectations for device use and online behavior. And for every rule created around social media and device use, be prepared for an explanation as to why that rule is necessary. This fosters an atmosphere of respect, she explained.
“This is a great tool to have a conversation around what’s appropriate and why,” she added. “And when kids and adults feel respected, they are going to be more apt to follow the rules and think about them. And from there, kids learn to monitor themselves.”
Making digital personal
Wolk said a family agreement needs to be tailored with each child in mind and modified accordingly.
For example, if a child is prone to anxiety around traumatic events on the news, then exposure to news sites, or even news on television, should only be allowed with a parent present. If a child is impulsive, consider making a rule about posting on social media. “Think before you post” is a good rule for all, but for an impulsive child, a waiting period to think a post over and discuss with a parent is advisable. And most kids need to consider their exposure to social media, and how it impacts them mentally, to set appropriate boundaries, Wolk noted.
“Know your child and their triggers around technology use so you can personalize that media document. Some kids are born where things roll off their back. Some kids will see things on social media and it makes them insecure. It’s important they know themselves so they are prepared,” she says.
Wolk has seen many parents who want their children to use devices less, but spend a good portion of their own day online or on their phone. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to re-evaluate, she said.
“Think about what you’re really after. I am finding sometimes clients want kids off the phone, but they want to be on their own phones,” she noted. “What do you want? What family life are you hoping to create by getting your kids off devices?”
Getting parents off devices frees up crucial time for connecting, something Wolk thinks many families are missing. Now, instead of a conversation on a car trip, everyone retreats into a device.
“So much is being replaced by digital distraction,” she said. “But some of what you learn in these situations are important skills for later in life. For example, feeling awkward on your own in a crowd? Don’t retreat into a phone. Develop the social skills for getting through the awkwardness of feeling alone and bad. We engage in the real world as we continue to grow up, and we need communication skills beyond a text.”