Monitoring your child’s use of electronics can be challenging. I’ve struggled with this parenting problem for quite some time, but finally realized that if I apply the principles outlined in this blog, I can get a handle on it, because the problem of monitoring electronics is just the same as any other parenting problem. You have to 1. Decide what your rules are and 2. Calmly enforce the rules. (This is one of those “simple” but not so “easy” situations!)
Step One: Decide what your rules are. This is really where the difficulty comes in with electronics, because we don’t have a sense of cultural or family norms. With many other situations you can look to what your parents or other parents you know or admire did, but with electronics everyone is new at it! All parents are floundering, walking around blind, bumping into (metaphorical) corners and chairs. Talking to other parents helps some, but there are so many particulars – type of electronic, age of child, personal comfort with electronics, knowledge of parental controls. It used to be you could reasonably keep electronics (computers) in the main living area, but more and more children want their own personal device. You have to decide: Are you going to have all electronics on the main level? Have them “turn them in” at a certain time at night? Turn off the wifi at a certain time? Monitor their usage through history or mobile updates? There are many options.
When you are figuring out your family rules talk with your spouse first. Explore how you both feel and make a plan for what the restrictions should be. Then present the plan to the children and get their input. Involving them in the discussion (in a developmentally appropriate way) will help them be more invested in the rules. Be sure to listen respectfully to all their ideas, experiences and concerns. They may have some valid feedback to consider and you will possibly modify the rules accordingly.
We sometimes present it like this, “We are worried about your electronic use (maybe elaborate on the specific worries and/or reasons these behaviors can be harmful). What ideas do you have to fix these problems?” These types of discussions can lead to some very useful information – how they feel about their own usage, what their friends’ rules are, what apps or sites they like or visit frequently. It’s a time for open discussion about issues that are important in their lives.
I’ll tell you a little about our experiences and rules we’ve set. This is not meant to be a template for your situation because each family is different, but you might benefit from our example and learn some lessons sooner than we did.
A few things that seem like no-brainers now took us a while to realize. Requiring the door to be open when using a device was the first of these. The oldest child complained that the younger ones were loud and annoying, so we allowed her to have her door closed. She would be holed up in her room for hours playing on her device. Once we figured that out, we changed the rule to doors must be open when using a device. After a while we changed again, and now we only allow device usage on the main level.
Our second discovery was Restrictions on Apple devices. If you go to “settings,” “general,” “restrictions” you are able to set up a 4 digit passcode (on EACH separate device) and then set the age appropriate levels for many different aspects: music, apps, websites, games, etc. It is the simplest, most effective way to limit what content they are consuming. I wish I’d known about it from the beginning! One friend told me that when she gave her 10-year-old an Apple device she simply took off the Safari (web-browsing) app. There are plenty of other fun ways to use the device without surfing the internet.
Here is a screen shot of the Restrictions menu. It’s very simple to turn off certain applications or set maturity levels for various media.
Third, we realized we must create our own account for whatever social media our children are using, and follow them. Many parents (including myself) don’t necessarily want accounts on the apps their children are using. But to effectively monitor your child’s usage, you need to take the time to figure it out and check on his activity from time to time. My husband used this analogy: would you allow your child to have a locked room in the house that you weren’t allowed to go in? Of course not. You need to be aware of what your child is doing on these sites. This not only allows you to monitor his electronic activity, but also helps you get to know him. It’s a little window into his world: his interests, his friends, what he’s posting or liking.
Beyond those basics, it gets a little trickier. We have two teenage daughters with devices. The devices, ages and rules have changed over the years, but currently the older one has an iPhone and the younger an iPod. After having some problems on school nights with late night usage (posting on Instagram at midnight?! Did you think we couldn’t count back the hours?!), we wanted to require that the devices stay on the main floor overnight. We had a long discussion with the girls, and they convinced us that they needed the devices to use as an alarm to wake up in the morning. I know, I know, people have woken up early for decades without i devices, but my husband and I feel bad (guilty?) about how early they have to get up for school and early morning seminary, and the i devices do have the option of multiple alarms in multiple tones, so we relented.
Their bedrooms are upstairs, so we said they could have their devices in their bedrooms but not use them at all except for music/podcasts (another concession they fought for) and alarms. Any other usage has to be downstairs. This goes for the older one’s laptop, also, even though she wants to use it in her room to do homework.
Here’s a summary of our other rules or methods of dealing with electronic usage.
- The wifi goes off at 10:30 pm. We literally unplug the router because I couldn’t find a system that would turn it off for certain devices at certain times.
- The iPhone can still be used through its data, so her data is turned off at 10:30. I set this up on AT&T’s website through our account.
- We created an Open DNS account. I set it up to restrict adult websites all the time, and restrict social media usage (what Open DNS calls “time wasters”) after 10:30, just in case we forgot to unplug the wifi.
- We don’t allow use of electronics while making or eating food.
- Likewise, they are not allowed to use them during family dinner or family meetings.
- Netflix is limited to two 40 min shows/day.
- In addition, they get two hours of general use a day. Remember, they are 14 and 16 and get very good grades. They rarely get close to this limit except on summer break.
We wanted to make a rule that they have to hand over the devices when we ask for them, because really they are ours. Even if they bought the device themselves, we pay for the phone service and the wifi. We got a surprising amount of resistance on this, partially because we didn’t set this up as an expectation from the beginning. They really believe the devices belong to them and that we are invading their privacy by looking at them. I can understand their position somewhat. On the one hand, we as parents need to be monitoring not only the amount of time they use devices, but also what they are doing on them and with them. However, it is also like reading their diaries in a sense, or listening in to both sides of their phone conversations. It’s a tricky balance. As I was thinking about this problem I came up with the following solution:
We have one hour a week, set the same day and time every week, when they give their devices to us. We chose Sundays from 6-7. The regularity helps solve a few of the problems. First, it gets the girls in the habit of handing over their devices. It is a weekly reminder that the devices do not belong solely to them. Second, it gives us a weekly reminder to check on what they are doing. Without a system or routine, we tend to forget to do this regularly. We look over their usage and do a quick check (or a lengthy one, if warranted) of their texts, emails and posts. This is not a complete solution. They still can and might delete their web page history or texts. We just have to trust that we have a good enough relationship with them and have taught them correct principles well enough that they will make good decisions.
We do allow exceptions to these rules, especially when the children calmly explain what they want. As I explained in the post Use Your Words, I want my children to learn that the more words you use the more likely you are to get what you want. For example, if friends are over, the internet can stay on beyond the usual time. Or, over Christmas break if they want to watch an extra show on Netflix, that’s okay.
Here is a link to a blog with more tips on parental restrictions. There’s a menu at the top (called Click Here for Cheat Sheets) with options for various applications. It can be complicated and time consuming, but welcome to parenting in the 21st century!
Once you’ve decided the rules for your family, give yourself permission to change them as needed. If you try the rules out for a few weeks or months, you may find they don’t work for various reasons. It’s okay to say to your kids, “We’ve realized this isn’t working, we’ve reassessed and these are the new rules.” The rules are necessarily going to change through the years as your kids get older and the devices change.
Now we come to Step Two: Calmly enforce the rules. The rules you decide on are somewhat arbitrary and may change, but once you have chosen your regulations, you can be certain you are doing the best thing for your family at this time. If you are unsure, children can sense that and will test you more. Also, being unsure makes you more frustrated and more likely to lash out at them (when it’s your uncertainty that is really causing the stress). Be secure in your rules and present them in a confident, sure manner. Also, present them in a positive manner, explaining that it’s your responsibility to keep your children safe and help them develop good habits around device usage, and that you want to encourage real things with real people as much as possible.
As you explain and implement the new rules, your children may (probably will) complain and balk at first, and you may be worried that it’s going to be terrible. But, BELIEVE ME, I’ve done this many times and always found that they get used to the rules. As long as the rules are enforced in a calm, kind way, there will be no long term negative detriments to their health or well being, or your relationship with them! At first it seems dreadful, but after a while everyone gets used to it, and things go smoothly.
For the first while we took away their devices for various lengths of time as the consequence of not following the rules. But this started to feel like we were trying to “catch” them breaking the rules, and I felt it wasn’t conducive to a respectful and trusting relationship. It finally dawned on me that I was not being true to the principles in this blog! I was focusing on consequences (which were really just punishments) because doing so was easier and more straight forward. We decided to change our ways and do away with any consequences, except in extreme cases. Now we use the methods outlined in this blog. In Stop and Redirect I explain how most misbehavior can be addressed with a simple reprimand and instruction. In this case I would say, “Remember not to use your phone in your room. You’re only supposed to use it on the main level.” The next important step in managing children’s behavior is Positive Reinforcement. We notice the times when they are using them on the main level and say, “Thank you for obeying the rule of being on the main level. I appreciate that!” We also make sure we Stay Close to Our Children in other ways, to maintain a positive relationship and to know what is going on in their lives.
We set up and modify the rules by having discussions with our daughters, listening to their points, and responding respectfully. Through this process, they became invested in the rules and verbally agreed to follow them. After that we give them the benefit of the doubt that they want to follow the rules, they just forget sometimes. If they are repeatedly disobeying or forgetting the rules we would take the device away for a time (corresponding with the misbehavior) but that is not our first line of defense to encourage obedience. When it was our first line of defense (when we were looking for disobedience and readily handing out punishment) it set up an adversarial relationship – one based on the premise that they will misbehave and we must “catch” them at it. It just didn’t feel right to us.
So, in summary, to regulate electronics you apply all the parenting principles in this blog just as you would with any parenting dilemma. You explain expectations; you phrase it in positive ways; you reinforce the good behavior; you prevent your own irritation. You address your own issues, and you practice patience. Deciding the particular rules can be difficult, but after that you just stay calm and be kind!
Note – I recently wrote another post about electronics for a different website, which you can find here. Some of the content is overlapping, but it is all important!