How to keep kids ‘screen smart’ in the digital age

How do you know when your child is ready for a cellphone?

That’s the $1 million question nearly every parent in the digital age faces at some point. And according to parenting and public health expert Julianna Miner, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Screens, smartphones and social media are a reality of the modern world, and teaching kids and teens to use them responsibly has become an important, albeit new, part of parenting. In her book, “Raising a Screen Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age,” Miner offers insight, experience and advice to help parents guide their kids toward digital technology’s positive attributes and away from its pitfalls.

Here are some key takeaways:

Before you buy a phone, make a list

Before you run out and buy a phone for your child, Miner suggests a family writing activity: Have your child make a list of all the reasons why they want a phone and what they should be allowed to do with it. Would phone use be limited to logistical planning, such as arranging transportation to and from activities? Or do they intend to use it for social media?

At the same time, jot down the reasons why you think they should have one. Then, compare their mobile motivations to your expectations, and set clear rules in place.

“There are so many little things that go into it, and having those conversations up front can really help put everyone on the same page,” said Miner, who oversees the Northern Virginia-based award-winning blog, “Rants from Mommyland.”

Keep the lines of communication open

Many parents have a no-questions-asked policy to keep kids safe from dangerous situations, such as getting into a car with a friend who has been drinking. And Miner said it’s important to have that same kind of “call me anytime” understanding when it comes to their digital lives.

“The data tells us a lot of kids won’t disclose to their parents that something bad is going on online because they don’t want to lose their phones or they don’t want to tip their parents off that they are maybe doing something they shouldn’t or hanging out with someone they shouldn’t be,” Miner said.

“So if you have an agreement with your kid that says, ‘If something really terrible is happening online or [if there is] something that is freaking you out or is potentially unsafe … let me know and I’ll help,’ … It really encourages them to disclose to you that there’s a bad situation and you can come in and help and try and contain it before it gets totally out of control.”

The sunny side of smartphones

Not everything related to teens and screens results in doom and gloom. Having a smartphone has some positives, Miner said. For example, her teenage daughter recently taught herself how to play the ukulele via online tutorials, and then she was able to share her songs with others.

Miner said social media can also be a “bridge” for young people who are shy or have difficulties reaching out to others.

“Kids can use it to build social capital, to make friends, to deepen their connections and relationships with other people, to share the things that they care about, and to use it as a tool to learn about things,” she said.

Additionally, Miner said giving a kid a smartphone fosters a sense of independence.

“One of the things that a lot of parents now realize is that we had a lot more independence and freedom as kids. It was just a different world,” she said, adding that it was normal when she was 10 or 12 to go downtown with friends for a slice of pizza.

“Nowadays if a 10-year-old walks to the park by themselves, there’s a chance somebody could call the police.”

A phone, however, acts as a safety net when kids ask to meet up with friends.

“When they get to a certain age, if they have a phone, it’s much easier to say, ‘Go ahead and go get a smoothie with your friends and just text me when you get there,’” Miner said.

“It gives them the opportunity to really have that freedom and do it in a way that feels safe.”

Confronting cyberbullying

Seventy percent of kids report seeing frequent bullying online, and cellphones are the most common medium for cyberbullying, according to DoSomething.org. Therefore, bullying is something every parent should address with their children before handing over a phone, but Miner said the conversation doesn’t need to be wildly different from other bullying discussions.

“Teaching kids to avoid it are the same skills in both places — being empathetic, being compassionate, standing up for your friends if they’re targeted and letting someone know if something’s going on that seems like it’s not OK,” Miner said.

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