If you are not an educator, you like me, do not have much of a template for parenting/teaching children how to be responsible digital citizens. Note that these skills are higher level executive functioning skills. They require practice, intentionality, and development. By that I mean, as young people age and their prefrontal cortex continues to mature these skills become easier to obtain and practice. We cannot expect that a 11 year old can be handed a smartphone and refrain from indulging in every impulse to look up a video/meme of whatever she/he is thinking about in the moment. They do not have the level of maturation in their prefrontal cortex to refrain from gratifying their curiosity.
What are the skills needed in a digital age?
- Ability to Delay Gratification.
This is the ability to wait for a long-term reward. For instance, setting a date or an expectation for children to meet before having some privilege. Most Social Media accounts for example, require a child to be 13 years old. Using that and sticking to it. And/or playing video games at the end of the week if all the homework is done.
- Focus attention
This is the ability to stay on task. The act of concentrating. This is and will continue to be an important skill in a digital age. As our devices seek to attract our attention, it becomes difficult to choose how and where to put our attention and intention. By assisting our children in strengthening this “muscle”, we are preparing them for any vocational work that requires them to utilize digital tools.
- Impulse control
This is related to the delay of gratification. However, this is the in the moment awareness of I want something and building the skills to resist the urge to do what I want in the moment so that I can receive a greater benefit down the road.
- Discernment skills
This is about being able to tell if something is too good to be true, news is legitimate or misinformation, I’m being manipulated by someone or an algorithm. Perhaps you are familiar with the term Catfishing. This refers to someone attempting to fool another person online about their identity, usually for nefarious purposes.
- Anxiety Management skills
A game of angry birds is not by itself an awful thing to do when I am anxious but having other “tools” in the “tool bag” is important. Technology often functions as a way to disassociate from the self. Many other anxiety coping strategies often assist us in getting back into our bodies and understanding what we are feeling. A game of Angry Birds/Fruit Ninja or whatever, can be 1 tool, but children must have many others. Many of the more effective anxiety management tools are more difficult to acquire than technology as a distraction from anxiety. Parents/Caregivers/Guardians will need boundaries, patience, and lots of empathy to assist with the development of these skills.
Okay but how do we do this?
The task as a parent is to provide gradual access to devices that allow children to practice these specific skills. Parents/guardians can be more restrictive with the introduction of any of these guidelines:
- Have specific places in your home that are device free – this allows children to practice skills 1,2,3, and 5. Access to other areas of the home can increase as children continue to demonstrate proficiency in the skills listed.
- Have devices required for only specific purposes – for instance, a cell phone could be ONLY for person to person or group communication via text or voice, social media only on desktop or other device, gaming on a certain device, using a specific reader, listening to music, homework/work on a specific device, media use (Netflix, YouTube, streaming, etc.) on specific device. This allows children to practice skills 1, 2, and 3. As children begin to demonstrate mastery of the above skills, new devices can be added, or device functions can be merged. For instance, the phone could be used to communicate and use social media. It is important to provide careful monitoring to make certain skills are maintained and do not deteriorate or atrophy, especially in the early stages of new privileges being provided. If this does occur, take a step back to the previous access and review skills needed to utilize the phone for both purposes.
- Children ask permission before making a purchase of ANY kind or connecting with ANY person online with a parent or designated person – This allows them to practice skills 1, 3, 4, and 5. This gives parents a chance to review concerns, discuss impulse control, assist them in practicing discernment skills about joining an online group or accepting a new online relationship. Remember as parents/guardians/caregivers we are “Surrogate Prefrontal Cortexes” as Dr. David Walsh has said for young people. We don’t make their decisions for them, but we put some guardrails up by helping them explore the implications or consequences of their decisions.
We are hopeful this is helpful. Remember this is still so new for so many of us. Patience and grace for yourself and your parenting partners as we work to figure out how to lead our children into healthy and responsible ways to use technology. Our task is to assist them so that they use technology, and it does not use them.