Teens, tweens and technology: Helping families manage the use of computers, devices and social media. Setting ground rules and enforcing them consistently can help, experts advise.
You’d like to chat with your teens on the drive to soccer practice, but they’re texting. In the evenings they manage to stretch out two hours of homework to five hours of Facebook, Skype, Hulu and assorted video games. They want to sleep with their cellphone by their bed.
Today’s parents may feel like technology is not just encroaching on, but subsuming, their family time. They may also get the uneasy feeling that their teens could be doing things online that could land them in trouble.
Even though it’s not always comfortable or easy, parents can find ways to educate, monitor and limit their tweens and teens when it comes to technology.
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As scientists and parents know, self-control is not fully developed in teen brains, so it can be hard for them to voluntarily turn off a video game or log out of Facebook. The average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than 7 ½ hours each day using entertainment media, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
And despite the correlation between heavy media use and lower grades, only three in 10 young people reported having family rules about TV, videos games and the Internet.
Laura Kastner, the Seattle-based co-author of “Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens,” says that giving middle-schoolers a computer without any restrictions is like offering them an unlimited supply of Häagen Dazs ice cream and telling them not to eat too much.
“You’re certainly not setting them up for success,” she said.
Limiting teen use of technology can be daunting, but setting ground rules and enforcing them consistently can help, Kastner said.
One common rule is a “technology curfew,” where phones and computers are put on their chargers in parents’ rooms or kitchens at 9 or 10 p.m. to keep teens from losing sleep to midnight text conversations or videos in their bedrooms.
For homework time, Kastner suggests that teens download anything they need from the Internet, turn off the Internet and work for 90 minutes. This can shield from the distractions of friends sending messages over Skype or watching the latest YouTube video.
Another rule may be “no texting in the passenger seat” — for parents who want to talk with their teens, rather than feel like a chauffeur.
To reclaim more of that family time, Rabbi Chaim Levine, of Seattle, recommends Tech-Free Fridays, where all members of the family put away gadgets after dinner to hang out together.
“From just joking around and being playful to having truly meaningful conversations about life, everyone starts feeling more connected to each other,” he said.
Enforcing technology rules can be challenging. One Bellevue couple said they feel like they are constantly policing and punishing their two sons, ages 16 and 17.
“A couple of years ago we found one using his PSP [Sony handheld game player] to access the neighbor’s unsecured wireless system and look at porn,” said the father, who asked not to be identified, so he took it away. If he forgets to check if his sons’ cellphones have been stowed in the kitchen for the night, he sometimes finds them in the boys’ beds.
Still, he tries to keep on top of it because, he says, “I want to keep communicating what is right and what is wrong.”
Kastner believes the best defense against technology overuse can be to keep tweens and teens engaged with a healthy balance of after-school sports, clubs and volunteering, all the way through high school.
“Studies show a myriad of benefits related to exercise, helping others and accessing positive peer groups,” she said, “Plus, it’s hard for them to find too much time to be online.”
By college age, Kastner said, teens are more likely to be self-motivated to do their schoolwork and have better self-control.
Along with tracking teen tech time, parents need to keep an eye on what their teens are doing online. Some 93 percent of American teens 12 to 17 use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and 66 percent of children get their first cellphone before they’re 14.
Computers and phones are powerful tools, said Frederick Lane, author of “Cybertraps for the Young,” and they warrant lots of communication between parents and children.
Dinner-table discussions about cyberethics and risky online behavior should come early and often, according to Lane. Topics like respect for people’s privacy or how to treat classmates take on more urgency when parents hand a cellphone to their tween or young teen.
“Your child might be just entering middle school, but they need to know there are consequences for their actions, from sending a derogatory text or forwarding a seminude photo,” said Lane. Cellphones are now cameras and distribution systems, he said, so a bad decision can spread quickly.
The most important things are to set expectations and keep the lines of communication open, said Lane. He suggests parents and children create clear rules together and write them into a contract.
Examples might be “no video games during homework time,” “no mean Facebook posts,” and “don’t put any private information online, like age or address.”
Teens and tweens need to know that using a cellphone or computer is a privilege that will be revoked if they break the rules, Lane said.
Parents shouldn’t feel like spies monitoring their children’s behavior online, said Dr. Kathy Risse, a Seattle pediatrician. They should let their tweens and teens know they will be examining their phone and checking in on their Skype and Facebook accounts.
Knowing their parents might be reading their texts and posts can make teens more circumspect, she said.
Technology poses a whole set of issues for families, and parents shouldn’t try to manage them alone, Kastner said. They can assemble a network of peers to compare household rules and let each other know if they see something amiss.
Lane advises schools to reinforce cyberethics in health-education classes.
Schools can also help educate families by sharing related scientific studies, the names of the latest popular websites and video games, and ideas for teens to help manage technology use.
In the age of information, the most important protection might just be well-informed parents.
Julie Weed is a freelance writer in Seattle. Look for more pieces in coming weeks on how teens and tweens use technology.