kid's tablet

Like many parents, I worry that my kids and I spend too much of our lives staring at a screen. The Great Screen-Time Battle rages in my household as I try to limit my children’s screen time as well as my own. From TV to YouTube to educational games, my kids constantly crave tech.

How much is too much? One hour a day? Two? Any?

Because I’m a blogger, and because I rely on social media to promote Just BE Parenting, I recognize the benefits of technology to spread awareness and build communities. But I also worry that too much screen time will negativity impact my children’s education, social skills, or at the very least, eyesight.

In short, I have a conflicted relationship with the digital world. To be honest, I often catch myself being judgmental of the ways other parents use technology, including my own husband, as well as how my own children use it.

Is it appropriate for a kindergarten to have a YouTube channel or to hand a toddler a tablet at a restaurant? Is middle school too young to give a child a smartphone? What about social media accounts for minors? Like most parenting decisions, we all have slightly different views on these questions.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Devorah Heitner’s new book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive)Their Digital World. As founder of Raising Digital Natives, Heitner encourages parents to have open conversations with one another and their children about the pitfalls and perks of technology and social media.

Screenwise offers a thoughtful, comprehensive review of the benefits and challenges of parenting in the digital age with practical advice on topics ranging from pre-K YouTube fans to teenage sexting.

Turns out, screen-time policies are a hotbed for parental judgment, and though I’m dedicated to promoting non-judgmental parenting, I’m part of the problem.

“Whatever our screen-time policies are, we may feel judged by other parents,” Heitner writes. “The fear of judgment can keep us from talking openly with one another, which deprives us of a crucial resource.”

Bingo. Point one Heitner.

After reading Screenwise, I took another look at my own view of technology and reexamined both my strict screen-time limits and my husband’s more permissive approach.

Heitner advocates “tech-positive” parenting and digital mentorship. “Helping [kids] make good decisions is a better and more effective strategy than trying to protect them from everything out there,” Heitner writes.

Heitner breaks down parents into three categories:

Limiters (i.e. Screen time is wasted time): Me

Enablers: (i.e. Here’s a tablet, kid, do what you want): My husband

Mentors: Mentors teach children to be responsible “digital citizens” by enabling them to understand the differences between positive and negative tech use. Mentors interact with their children in digital spaces and model positive behavior.

Instead of rolling my eyes in disgust when my husband handed our daughter his smart phone, I began to sit with her and watch the clips she selected. I asked questions. She showed me a few of her favorite channels, and I was surprised to see that one was an actor reading a full-length chapter book. As the actor spoke, each word of text was highlighted at the bottom of the screen. The characters sometimes acted out the story, but the words were always there. Some of her other favorites included the dreaded toy demonstrations, but it wasn’t all the mindless entertainment I imagined.

My daughter was genuinely engaged in our conversation and seemed excited to share her favorites with me. I realized that all my “rotting-your-brain” comments were not helpful, and worst yet, may have made her feel ashamed of something she enjoyed.

Instead of just limiting the amount of time my daughter watches YouTube (and believe me, I will. Otherwise, that kid would watch it all day), I can help her distinguish between fun, educational channels and mindless viewing.

I can take it a step further and use YouTube as a tool to foster off-line play. We can act out a book together (and even video tape it). We can watch a cupcake decorating tutorial and then try to recreate the steps ourselves.

We want our kids to use technology wisely, or as Heitner puts it, to be screenwise: “Our kid’s future success will depend on true digital fluency,” Heitner writes, “Their ability to relate to other people and to succeed in their relationships is completely dependent on developing a strong digital skill set.”

Like wearing a seatbelt or proper dental hygiene, digital skills are something we need to teach our children.

Our parents could not be our digital mentors. Most likely, we’ve had to teach them about social media security settings. Hence, the myriad of examples out there of young adults losing jobs because of Facebook posts or the proliferation of doxing. (If you don’t know what that is, google it and prepare to lose a little sleep).

Parents today have a unique opportunity to apply their lived experiences to the digital world our kids inhabit. Because despite whatever limitations we place on them now, our children will likely have a life-long interaction with technology and a massive digital footprint. Like it or not, in many ways, our village—and theirs—has moved online.

Part of being a good mentor is understanding the digital landscape, and for that, parents will need to rely on each other. Do most children in your child’s class have a smart phone? Why or why not? Discussing these questions openly, and without judgment, with other parents can help inform our discussions with our own children.

The same practices I apply to other areas of parenting—reserving judgment and accepting that each parenting relationship is unique—now applies to technology as well. I may still have a conflicted relationship with my digital life, but I’m open to more of the possibilities this tech-centric world provides for my children.

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Kathryn Hively

I started Just BE Parenting as a way to cope with the anxiety of balancing work, motherhood, and the impulse to write. That’s right, I’m not a parenting expert. I, my kids, and my family are perfectly flawed in MANY ways. As a parent, I’m trying to let go of perfection and just BE the best mother I can for my kids. The ‘B’ and ‘E’ in Just BE Parenting also represents the first letters of my children’s names. What works for me and my family may not work for you and yours. That’s ok! Even if we’re not the same, I hope you’ll find something relatable here.