Screen time solution: Sign a digital contract with kids

WASHINGTON — As society spends more time looking at screens, experts say it’s up to parents to model good digital behavior for their kids.

Setting limits on screen time can be hard, even for parents who have established rules in their homes. Everyone in the home uses technology differently, based on a number of factors including age, medium and necessity.

The nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, formed in 2007, published a “Seven Steps to Good Digital Parenting Guide” after conducting a study of parents with plugged-in kids under 12 years old.

“We feel if parents take these, they’re going to get a much better handle on the technology,” said Stephen Balkam, who runs the institute, which has also published a digital contract for families.

Some of the steps include:

  • Educating yourself about the apps, games and sites kids use
  • Use parental controls on all platforms, including on search engines and on games
  • Set ground rules and apply sanctions including time and place limits on tech use

Their 2017 study of 600 parents found nearly half said their child has more than three devices.

“We used to be asked,  ‘Should I get my high school student an iPhone?’ Then it became middle school, now we’re seeing kindergartners with mom and dad’s old phone. It’s the pass back — parents pass it back in the car to keep the kid quiet and then they end up having it,” Balkam said.

The average age of children with smartphones is now seven and a half, Balkam said, while the average age of children with tablets is five and a half years, according to the study.

“It’s not the birds-and-the-bees talk. It’s something you’re going to be doing from age two, quite frankly,” Balkam said of talking to kids about the do’s and don’ts of using technology.

A 2017 study led by Oxford University debunked a year-old American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for children 2 to 5 years old, that reducing a child’s screen time results in a boost to their resilience.

“The team found no consistent correlations between either the 2010 or revised 2016 advised digital usage limits and young children’s well-being. While children aged two to five whose technology usage was limited in-line with AAP guidance showed slightly higher levels of resilience, this was balanced by lower levels of positive affect,” the Oxford study concluded.

However, it’s harder to measure how time adults spend with technology affect their relationships at home.

To help parents navigate, the organization has developed a digital contract with terms that both parents and kids have to agree to, which Balkam sees as a way to address how both parties will behave online and set expectations.

Some of the children’s side of the contract include:

  • I’ll treat others the way I want to be treated online.
  • I will tell my parents if I receive pictures or links I didn’t ask for, that contain inappropriate content, bad, hateful or mean language or anything I think might not be right.
  • I will help my parents learn more about the internet and understand what I do and where I go online.

Parents are constantly modeling how their child perceives technology’s importance, he said, using as an example the habit of taking a phone to the bedroom.

“The kids come into our rooms and they see the blue light. And they want that,” he said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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