Teaching kids to use technology for good

Joan Goodchild/Cyber Savvy Mom

Each year at this time, many of us make resolutions. We vow to do things differently, even better, at the outset of each year. Maybe as a parent you have resolutions you want to stick with for 2020 -- losing your temper less, more time engaged with the kids in educational activities, ensuring your family eats healthy foods most of the time. These are all great examples of resolutions we make to enhance our lives, and our children’s lives as well. 

But here is one more: What if we resolved to partner with our kids on technology use for more productive, enriching purposes?

By managing our device and screen time to be more educational and personally enriching, I am not suggesting we take them away or curtail time spent doing something we enjoy. Instead, I suggest we have a conversation around all of the positive ways the internet can enhance our lives and we spend the next twelve months (and hopefully beyond) using the bulk of our screen and device time for good. 

There is a misconception that screen time is simply bad news. But an emerging body of data finds it is not screen or device time that is damaging to young brains, but instead WHAT kids are doing with their devices that matter. As Dr. Larry Rosen, PhD, points outin a recent articlein Psychology Today, “it is not such a simple equation where more screen time = more problems.” 

Rosen has been conducting research since 2016 with young adult college students with the aim of understanding what aspects of screen time are problematic in the realm of psychological well-being, sleep and academic performance. Early results of some of the research conclude it is not the amount of screen time that leads to problematic outcomes, but the choices made about when to use screen time and where to use that time. 

To put it bluntly, spending time watching YouTube videos and the passive entertainment it serves up due to its algorithms is very different from the time a child spends practicing math onKhan Academy. 

But you probably knew this. The question is: how do we encourage our kids to spend more time on so-called “good” tech activities, and model our own tech use accordingly?

Devices and technology are not going anywhere. As parents, it is our job to help our kids understand the difference between productive use, simple entertainment and even harmful use. Start with a discussion around how much time they are spending doing things like watching videos and surfing social media. Suggest a change, and then introduce them to educational sites, apps and media. And make a commitment to spend even just a little less time, daily and weekly, using devices altogether. These are all a solid foundation to start taking control of how we spend our tech time, and to recast it in a more positive direction. 

Here are some ideas for what to discuss with your kids, and how to tailor your own device use, for constructive technology habits in 2020.

Minimize low value content 

Sites and apps like YouTube and TikTok are wildly popular with kids and fun to watch. Many children who use devices consider these apps their main source of entertainment and will spend hours mindlessly watching videos from both platforms. But while a little entertainment each day is deserved and understandable, if that is the primary way kids are spending time online, it is low value. 

This kind of passive consumption is not doing anything for brain development, and someresearch finds is even harmful in large quantities. Agree on an acceptable amount of time using technology for passive entertainment – one hour daily is probably enough – and stick to it.

Spend more time with substantive content

Conversely, encourage your kids to seek out substantive, productive ways to spend some time each day while online. Math sites like Khan Academy or IXL Learning offer ways to practice skills and do something fun. There are phonics, spelling and brainteaser sites that also offer a fun ways to build brain muscle.

There are many mediums out there that give kids an enjoyable, educational experience, and can help them develop anything from emotional processing to language skills. Check out Mashable’sgreat list of the safest places on the internet for kids to get ideas.

Aim to use tech to learn new things weekly 

Help your kids understand that the web is not all silly videos and memes. While obviously they know the web has educational benefits because they are probably accessing some education sites for homework and through school, there is an entire world of enriching content out there beyond their classroom curriculum. You just need to give them a push to find it – and then encourage them to spend their time with it. 

Tell them about your favorite podcasts and audiobooks and help them find some that will appeal to their interests. Do you have a kid that loves animals? Search up a documentary about wildlife and help them channel that passion into learning. 

What about an online course or tutorial? Sites likeDIY.org have subscription-based expert instructional videos in subjects like drawing, science, basic engineering, and photography, without many of the risks that sites like YouTube can pose.

Commit to less time spent on devices 

Most of us are likely using our devices too much. But this time spent connecting virtually takes us away from meaningful, personal connections. As mentioned in a previous Cyber Savvy Mom column, Jean Rogers of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and director of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network suggests setting time expectations with a family media plan.

But instead of emphasizing the effort to avoid screens, use the family media plan to fill your day with non-device-based activities and then see how much time is left for screens once other “low tech” activities have been accomplished.

You can find a family media plan tool on the American Academy of Pediatrics website.

Happy New Year to you and your family. Let’s make 2020 the year we take back device time and make technology work for us and our children!

Joan Goodchild, aka the Cyber Savvy Mom, is a writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts. Have a topic you would like to see discussed? Reach her at cybersavvymom@yahoo.com or follow her on Facebook. Get more advice for staying smart, secure and civil online at cybersavvymom.com.