Today’s kids are immersed in media. More than ever before, tweens and teens are watching, reading, listening, creating, and communicating throughout their entire day. It’s become harder to distinguish between screen time and just … time. The Common Sense Census found that American teens average about nine hours of media per day and tweens about six per day. This doesn’t include time spent doing homework on a computer or tablet or reading books for school.
Parents should feel empowered to set limits on screens of all sizes. Devices are a huge part of screen time, and kids need support in establishing balance and setting limits. Depending on your family, these rules can be as simple as “no phones at the dinner table” or “no texting after 9 p.m.”
Encourage your kids to be creative, responsible consumers, not just passive users. Media can be incredibly productive, educational, and empowering. Helping younger kids find great content and get access to quality books, complex movies, challenging games, and safe apps and websites fosters a positive relationship with media.
Help kids understand the effects of multitasking. Our research shows tweens and teens think multitasking has no impact on the quality of their homework. As parents, we know that helping kids stay focused will only strengthen interpersonal skills and school performance. Encourage them to manage one task at a time, shutting down social media while working online for homework or engaging in conversation.
Talk the talk, walk the walk. Lead by example by putting your own devices away during family time. Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home. Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.
When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is “enough.” What’s important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you’re comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called “brain-builder,” but there’s a difference between mindless and mindfulentertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say “one show.”
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it’s crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have — your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand — to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won’t flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don’t have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says “time to stop.”
Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ worksheets to create a family media plan.
Practice what you preach. It’s tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not “walking the talk.” Plus, they’ll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.
Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who’ve discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once — especially when they’re supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
Find ways to say “yes.” Look for movies they can watch. Find games you’re OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don’t approve of, help them find alternatives.
WHY GETTING MY 11-YEAR-OLD A PHONE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PARENTING DECISIONS I’VE EVER MADE
There was never any question in my mind that when our daughter started middle school, we would get her a smartphone. My husband and I work in technology-related fields and knew the benefits and drawbacks to getting her a phone at age 11. Instead of pledging to Wait Until 8th — delaying the introduction of a smartphone — we’ve spent the middle school years actively discussing and navigating the perceived dangers of the device while enjoying the unexpected advantages of it as a communication tool to strengthen our relationship. And you know what? It’s been one of the best parenting decisions we’ve ever made.
On any given day, I can usually count on at least one type of communication from my now 14-year-old daughter, who will start high school next year. This morning I sat down in my home office to get started with my work for the day and noticed that my daughter had updated her Instagram Story while waiting for the bus. She sent friends good-luck wishes for the week’s tests and a series of funny memes as a stress reducer. Her InstaStory was thoughtful and sweet and let me know that this week is going to be rough — even though she didn’t say it on her way out the door.
During the middle of the day, I noticed she posted during lunch when she was allowed to have her phone out at school. She breathed a sigh of relief that testing was over for the day and sent me a private message, responding to my InstaStory laughing at the day’s antics of our backyard chickens. On the bus home, she sent me a photo of a cat whose head was stuck through an entire pizza, followed by laugh emojis.
“Cat pizza? Really?” I asked as she walked in the door after school.
“Cat pizza!” she exclaimed, erupting in a fit of laughter. We talked about how ridiculous the meme was as she made her way to the fridge. She grabbed a stick of string cheese, and, holding it with one hand, she thrust the phone in my face with the other, scrolling through a series of memes that were just as hilarious. We were both laughing when her sixth-grade brother walked in the door a couple minutes later. Soon she was sharing what she had just showed me minutes before, and he was sitting there, shaking his head and smiling. Later the whole scenario was recounted for my husband at the dinner table. He had trouble understanding why this whole thing was funny until he was subjected to the meme thread, too. I guess you could say that social media has the power to bring us together as a family, even if we’re bonding over cat pizza.
While the decision about when to get your child a smartphone differs for every family, my husband and I don’t have any regrets about putting devices in our kids’ hands earlier rather than later. Sure, there have been downsides. We’ve learned exactly how quickly 2GB of data evaporates when kids are watching YouTube videos on the bus, witnessed the explosion of text messages in a group chat upon leaving the house to play a soccer game, and talked through some tough things before we meant to in the high school years. Text and private messages have been scrutinized together during conversations about how hard it is to convey tone through a screen. We’ve seen friendships wax and wane. But many of those ups and downs are as much hallmarks of adolescence as fallout from smartphone and social media use. And at every step of the way, parental involvement has been key.
If you’re looking to use social media as a positive way of communicating with your teen, here are three takeaways from our experience:
Realize the importance of learning together. While you may feel that you have a grasp on today’s social media tools, new ones are popping up every day. I remember when my daughter asked if she could download Sarahah. She said that some of her friends were using it, explained what it was used for, and asked if she could join, too. Before saying yes, I did my homework. I read the Common Sense Media review, polled fellow parent friends on Facebook, and did a quick Google search to get up to speed on the general parent sentiment. It’s not easy to parent in the digital age when new apps, social media platforms, and devices are coming out, but it’s important for families to work toward teaching responsibility and creating conversations, rather than just saying no.
Use the same social media tools as your kids. Not only does this familiarize you with the platforms, but having an account facilitates communication and conversations about the things that are important to your teens. My daughter and I communicate regularly through Instagram, and even though we don’t have a Snap streak going, I can still keep an eye on the content she posts.
Be respectful about what you post and the way you interact with your teen on social media platforms. While social media tools are great methods of communication, be aware of what is and isn’t OK. As my daughter has gotten older and her friends have become more social media savvy, I’m even more careful about what content I post. I’ve always checked with my kids to ensure the photos I’m sharing get their stamp of approval, partly because I know their friends can see what I post. Have a conversation with your teen about what is and isn’t OK, and know that what they may deem appropriate now might not be in the near future.
HELICOPTER PARENTING: FROM GOOD INTENTIONS TO POOR OUTCOMES
Do you stand over your child’s shoulder when they do their homework? Do you find yourself directing your kids’ every move? “Pick up this, clean up that, sit up straight, finish your homework, study hard, say thank you.” Do you spend a good chunk of your day obsessing about your children’s success, like will they make the sports team or school play, and will they get into the top-notch college you (yes, you!) always dreamed of?
I hate to break it to you, but you may be a helicopter parent—a term which is commonly used but also has a basis in research on specific parenting behaviors and their effects on children.
Most parents want the very best for their children, and so they’ll go to great lengths to be wonderful providers and protectors. The deep love and care that parents have for their children can even push parents to, well, be a bit over-the-top. And helicopter parents are known to be overly protective and involved in their children’s lives.
The term paints a picture of a parent who hovers over their children, always on alert, and who swoops in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or disappointment. The term was first coined in 1990 by Foster Cline and Jim Fay in their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, and it gained relevance with college admissions staff who noticed how parents of prospective students were inserting themselves in the admissions process.
Helicopter parenting can be defined by three types of behaviors that parents exemplify:
First, information seeking behaviors include knowing your children’s daily schedule and where they are at all times, helping them make decisions, and being informed about grades and other accomplishments.
Second, direct intervention means jumping into conflicts with kids’ roommates, friends, romantic partners, and even bosses.
Third, autonomy limiting is when students think their parents are preventing them from making their own mistakes, controlling their lives for them, and failing to support their decisions.
We all want to love our children as much as possible and protect them from the dangers in our society. We live in an increasingly competitive world and want to give our kids every advantage possible. But if we over-parent and smother them, it can backfire big time. A collection of research in recent years shows a connection between helicopter parenting and mental health issues like anxiety and depression as children get older and try to make it on their own.
The negative impacts of helicopter parenting
In 2010, a study by researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, found that overprotective parents might have a lasting impact on their child’s personality by prolonging childhood and adolescence. Approximately 300 college freshmen were surveyed about their level of agreement with statements regarding their parents’ involvement in their lives. The results showed that 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The research also revealed that students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, and were more vulnerable, anxious, dependent, and self-conscious.
A 2016 study from the National University of Singapore published in the Journal of Personality indicated that children with intrusive parents who had high expectations for academic performance, or who overreacted when they made a mistake, tend to be more self-critical, anxious, or depressed. The researchers termed this as “maladaptive perfectionism,” or a tendency in children of helicopter parents to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being perfect. This happens because the parents are essentially—whether by their words or actions—indicating to their kids that what they do is never good enough.
Another 2016 study evaluated questionnaires about parenting completed by 377 students from a Midwestern university. Students responded to statements about the type of parents they have, how often they communicate with their parents, and how much their parents intrude in their lives. The students also completed a number of tests to discern their decision-making skills, academic performance, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Results showed that higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with stronger symptoms of anxiety and depression.
According to that study, helicopter parenting “was also associated with poorer functioning in emotional functioning, decision making, and academic functioning. Parents’ information-seeking behaviors, when done in absences of other [helicopter parenting] behaviors, were associated with better decision making and academic functioning.”
In addition, the journal Cognitive Therapy and Researchpublished research in 2017 suggesting that helicopter parenting can trigger anxiety in kids who already struggle with some social issues. A group of children and their parents were asked to complete as many puzzles as possible in a 10-minute time period. Parents were allowed to help their children, but not encouraged to do so.
Researchers noted that the parents of children with social issues touched the puzzles more often than the other parents did. Though they were not critical or negative, they stepped in even when their children did not ask for help. Researchers think this indicates that parents of socially anxious children may perceive challenges to be more threatening than the child thinks they are. Over time, this can diminish a child’s ability to succeed on their own and potentially increase anxiety.
So how does all this hovering cause mental health problems in our children?
First of all, helicopter parents are communicating to their children in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways that they won’t be safe unless mom or dad is there looking out for them. When these children have to go off on their own, they are not prepared to meet daily challenges. This inability to find creative solutions and make decisions on their own can cause a great deal of worry since their protector is no longer around to help them.
Because these children were never taught the skills to function independently, and because they may have been held to unattainable or even “perfectionist” standards, children of helicopter parents can experience anxiety, depression, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. Another issue is that if these kids have never experienced failure, they can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Finally, if we don’t let our children have the freedom to learn about the world and discover their purpose and what makes them happy, they will struggle to find happiness and live a balanced life—all impacting their mental health.
What we can do to break the helicopter habit
All parents know that parenting is not easy. Having children and raising them presents innumerable challenges and surprises, but also immense joy and connection. Now that we know that overparenting only leads to more problems for our kids, we can make the following adjustments in our parenting approach:
Support your children’s growth and independence by listening to them, and not always pushing your desires on them.
Don’t try to help your children escape consequences for their actions unless you believe those consequences are unfair or life-altering.
Don’t raise your child to expect to be treated differently than other children.
Encourage your children to solve their own problems by asking them to come up with creative solutions.
Teach your children to speak up for themselves in a respectful manner.
Understand and accept your children’s weaknesses and strengths, and help them to use their strengths to achieve their own goals.
Parents should, of course, do the best they can for their kids. Impulses to involve ourselves in our children’s’ lives often come from a sense of duty, and of unconditional love. We can harness those desires to give the most we can to our kids by resisting helicopter parenting, which can lead to poor outcomes in adulthood.
Instead, try letting your children discover themselves—their weaknesses, strengths, their goals and dreams. You can help them succeed, but you should also let them fail. Teach them how to try again. Learning what failure means, how it feels, and how to bounce back is an important part of becoming independent in our world.
The talk. The birds and the bees. The awkward conversation with your parents you dreaded as a child. It probably went something like this: “Well, when two people love each other very much…” followed by a vague description of the physical act of sex, contraceptives, pregnancy, and STIs.
But were you ever taught about consent? What about affirmative consent? Did your parents and the adults in your life practice consent with each other, and with you? The #MeToo stories about non-consensual interactions, specifically ones that live in the grey area or ones that happen in childhood, are something we should all strive to eliminate from the next generation by educating our kids today.
If we can teach our kids about consent and show them how to practice it through our actions, through those little teaching moments, then maybe, these stories can be less common.
Here are seven ways to teach your kids, and the kids in your lives, about consent.
Practice consent by example Before children even learn to speak, they learn by observing and mimicking the world around them. It’s called observational learning. By practicing consent with our partners, friends, and other children, we can begin to model what consent should look like to those ever-watchful eyes.
This also extends to how we practice consent in our relationships with our children. By giving children choices in expressing consent in how they would like to be touched, we teach them how to express it when we’re not around. For example, If you want to kiss your child goodnight, ask them, “May I give you a kiss goodnight?” and respect their answer.
Give them bodily autonomy Giving children choice is a gateway to giving them the tools to express their consent. You can ask your child “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your yellow shoes today?” In the same way, it is important to give children options when it comes to their body. For example, if they have a rash and they need ointment you can say, “You need ointment for your rash, do you want to put it on, or can I help you?”
Giving children simple choices every day shows them that they have bodily autonomy so that they can carry that into other interactions. In the same way, it is important to not take that bodily autonomy away from your children. A common way children lose their bodily autonomy is through adults coercing them to hug and/or kiss relatives and friends. It’s important to show children that they have a choice. If they say no, you can give them alternatives, like “How about a fist bump?” but the key is to respect a “no” that may follow.
Teach them to listen to their bodies Consent isn’t just a verbal interaction, so it’s important that we teach children to listen to their bodies. What feels good and what doesn’t feel good to them? Teaching them what it feels like to be present in their physical self, and what it feels like to have their physical needs honored and met, is key to them being able to appropriately express their needs later.
Teaching children about their physical pleasure is something that Sue Jaye Johnson, a journalist and filmmaker, talks about working through with her daughters. In an interview for the Future of Sex Podcast, she talks about how her daughter will ask her to rub her back and how she then asks “Well, how would you like me to rub your back?” giving her daughter the space to think about her pleasure and express her physical wants in a productive way. In the same way, we also need to teach our children to listen to their gut feelings and instincts. Our bodies are a powerful tool in telling us that something doesn’t feel right. By encouraging children to give credence to these feelings and voice them, we encourage an understanding of their own pleasure and needs and how they might express that to future partners.
Give them the tools to express their physical wants and needs Once a child has language at their disposal, we can begin to help them express their wants and needs though their words. We can teach them polite ways to decline affection like “No, thank you. I don’t want to hug right now.” But we should also be teaching them that they can just say “no” and that that’s ok, too.
Rather than teaching our girls the narrative that if a boy teases you, he likes you, we should be teaching our kids that if they don’t like something and ask someone to stop, they need to stop. If their words aren’t heeded, that may be the appropriate time to involve an adult or remove themselves from interaction with the offending kid. In the same way, it is important to teach kids to ask permission, with words and gestures. They can offer a hand to hold or hold out their hands for a hug, but they also need to ask, use their words, and know that someone may say no.
Teach them how to handle physical rejection While we need to teach our kids how to say no, we also need to teach our kids to recognize and accept the rejection of affection. It’s important to encourage them to stop when someone says no, and to step in as adults when we recognize our kids being affection aggressors, holding other kids a little too long or a little too hard.
We can teach kids to accept rejection and redirect them. We can tell them that just because a friend doesn’t want a hug, that that doesn’t mean they don’t love them and we can direct them to show affection in other ways. You can tell your child to use words of affirmation, acts of service, or gifts to express affection. While channeling affection is important, it’s also important to just teach that it’s ok that someone doesn’t want something, in the same way that they may not want things at times. They are in control of their bodies, just as someone else is in control of theirs.
Turn awkward moments into teaching opportunities Something I’ve talked a lot about with peers is how their parents handled sex scenes in movies and television growing up. As a millennial, the general binary in my generation is parents who fast-forwarded through sex scenes and parents who made you endure the sex scenes in a tense silence. In addition to this binary, there are a lot of movies and shows from my childhood, and from generations prior, that display non-consensual interactions in a way that makes them seem okay.
What if we didn’t let that slide? What if we took media and created a dialogue, especially with older children and teens? If you’re watching a movie with your kid that has a sex scene, use the time that could be spent being awkward to talk about what’s being done right and what the characters should be doing regarding consent in the interaction.
Believe them and advocate for them Finally, and most importantly, it is essential to believe children and advocate for them. If your child expresses discomfort or unease, ask them about their feelings and validate them. This is a crucial step of Emotion Coaching. When you believe them, it creates an open channel for communication between you. It teaches them them to trust you and trust their own instincts. So in turn, they might also believe the story of someone else.
Ask them if they want or need intervention. It’s then your responsibility to advocate for them with whomever is making them uncomfortable. That might mean talking to a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult. Sometimes we’re the ones that need to step in and have those tough conversations until our children are old enough to have them on their own.
Rather than having “the talk” with your kids, think of teaching consent as an ongoing dialogue—a million little conversations and day-to-day actions that can help them feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies, and respect the sanctity of someone else’s.
10 WAYS YOUR KIDS COULD SEE PORN WITHOUT YOU KNOWING
“Are you excited for school to start?!”
As a kid, I would dread that question. I never wanted summer to end! Of course, now that I’m a parent, I find myself asking that question.
For a kid, back-to-school is about the buzzing excitement of a new adventure. It’s shopping for new clothes and school supplies, seeing friends again after a long summer apart, and getting to know new teachers, classrooms, and subjects.
For the parents, it’s the longed-for reality of a quiet house and the return of a regular schedule. Our days are spent on work routines, chores, or errands, while our kids are out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Our evening schedules fill up with activities and the pace of life increases. In all the commotion of a new school year, it’s easy to overlook some of the basic precautions we would (and should) normally take to keep our kids safe.
As you prepare your child to head back to school, here are ten potential “danger zones” where your kids could encounter mature or inappropriate content.
It’s the second most popular search engine after Google and one of the easiest ways for our kids to consume content such as video game walk-throughs, music videos, and movie trailers. But, the platform also contains a boatload of content that you may consider inappropriate for your children.
Some of the biggest dangers on YouTube are the suggested videos displayed after each video view. Clicking from one enticing video to the next can become a downhill slide from innocent to explicit content..
Kids love Instagram. In fact, some of them practically live there, documenting and sharing each moment of their lives with their group of friends. The image-based nature of the platform appeals to young people, but that nature combined with a lack of oversight on the part of Instagram can result in easily accessible porn.
This is another social media platform that kids spend a lot of time on. The large number of photo filters make it fun to share pictures and videos with friends. Unfortunately, this platform also hosts a volume of adult content, and there is very little enforcement by Snapchat to keep underage users from seeing it.
The “instant picture” feature of Snapchat can also be dangerous for young children. When a picture is sent or received, it can only be viewed for up to ten seconds; then, it disappears forever. This makes it easy to send inappropriate pictures and videos without the fear of being caught.
4. Google Images
Searching Google for images and videos can be a quick, convenient way to research a topic for school or entertainment. But, it’s important to remember that the search results can (and often will) contain mature content when Google SafeSearch has not been activated.
This is another way that kids might encounter the “rabbit hole” effect, where clicking on one enticing image reveals a list of other suggested images, which can become increasingly graphic in nature.
5. Personal Devices
Many kids have their own phones and tablets. It can be a great way to stay connected with your child and a fun source of entertainment for them.
However, it’s important for parents to remember that it’s our job to teach our children how to behave in a healthy, responsible manner, and that includes the use of their personal devices. Take the time to research and set up the available parental controls on your kid’s device. Also, using Screen Accountability software can promote honest, grace-filled conversations with our kids about how they use their devices.
When their devices are properly protected, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing your kids are safe, and they can feel free to have fun without you hovering over their shoulder.
6. School Laptops or Tablets
Many schools now offer students the opportunity to take home a school device, such as a laptop or iPad. It’s a great way to make sure all students have access to technology. Schools tend to lock these devices down so that students aren’t able to abuse them, but if you’re a parent, you know that kids can be resourceful. It’s always a good idea to have a basic understanding of the protections in place on your child’s school device.
7. Library Computers
Public libraries are a great way for people with limited internet access to get online for free. Most schools will also have a computer lab available for students to do research online. These are public places, but that doesn’t always stop a determined young person from searching out inappropriate content.
8. Your Devices
Do your kids know the password to access your phone, tablet, or laptop? Do you allow them to use your devices unsupervised?
If your kids are using your devices, you should consider implementing the same protections you would use on their devices. Otherwise, lock them out. They can still pick up your phone in a emergency and dial 911 without unlocking it.
9. A Friend’s House
It’s a basic rule of parenting that most of us do instinctively: know who your kids’ friends are and know their parents.
But, have you considered asking those parents how they are protecting their kids’ devices? Are the kids left unsupervised with their devices? Do they have their phone or laptop in their bedroom behind closed doors?
10. A Friend’s Device
You can’t be everywhere at once. No parent can. Maybe you trust the level of supervision at your child’s friend’s house, but what about at school? Or at the mall?
It’s a good idea to talk to your kids about using their friend’s devices and let them know you still expect responsible behavior, even when you’re not there to see it.
So, what can you do?
With the ease of access to media of all kinds via internet-connected devices, it can be overwhelming as a parent to try and keep up. Here are a few suggestions to help you keep your kids a little safer.
Pay attention. Know where your kids are, who they are spending time with, and what they are doing together. Just knowing you’re paying attention can often dissuade kids from acting out when they’re tempted.
Have conversations. Be a sounding board for your kids. Listen more than you talk. Let them know they can come to you with any problem, and they won’t be judged or condemned. Talk openly about things like pornography and why it can be so enticing and harmful. It’s important to maintain your authority, but you can do so in a way that encourages open communication and trust rather than secrecy.
Use technology to your advantage. Tech is often the problem, but it can also be the solution. Screen Accountability and Filtering software, such as Covenant Eyes, can help facilitate conversations with your child about how to use their devices safely and avoid online temptations. That’s the goal, after all: teach them how to stay safe.
Back-to-school is a good time to remind ourselves that our aim is not to put our kids in cages, but to raise them up into healthy, responsible adults who know how to navigate this digital world with integrity.
Take it from a middle school teacher and mom: Kids need to
manage their online activities — and parents need to help them do it.
This article is part of Common Sense
Media’s Parent Voices series, which provides a platform for opinions about
parenting in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer’s own.
Last year Fortnite invaded
my middle school classroom — as I believe it did to middle school classrooms
across the country. Students who were usually on task and high-performing were
nodding off and “forgetting”
to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or
who was the last man
standing became part of our early morning check-ins. Then the
phone calls with parents started: Over several months, I had numerous telephone
and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids’ performance.
When I brought up screen time,
there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious as
to what their children were doing after hours, some didn’t know how to rein in
screen time, and some thought they had it all under control — but clearly did
I get it. I’m not just a teacher: I’m
a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent last summer trying
to keep my own middle school daughter unplugged in the rural English
countryside. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by
little, I tried to use my own advice — “However much you read
is how much screen time you get” — and reasoning, “Make sure you
balance your learning games with your other games.” But then I’d hear my
daughter yelling at a friend who’d just left her online game, and I’d feel like
I’d lost the battle.
The thing is, I’m not anti-screen.
I’ve seen technology bring some amazing teaching
momentsto my classroom — and to my own life. One student, whom I
could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt
poem about how he “nearly won” in Fortnite.
It became his breakthrough,
and he hasn’t stopped writing since. Other kids made parallels to the dystopian books they
were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their
points. And, far away from her friends in the United States, my daughter was
able to stay in touch with her friends online, keep herself occupied with Roblox,
and feel a part of pop culture by watching every Miranda Sings video
Those breakthrough moments of
connection, creativity, and critical thinking are what I strive for as a
teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the
management of their kids’ screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And
knowing middle school kids as well as I do, I know that they aren’t always able
to shut downFortnite or YouTube without the
guidance and support of their
parents. I’ve also discovered that tech is never going to be a
one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others.
Finding what is best for your family can involve a bit of trial and error.
These are the strategies that worked
for many of my parents last year and that I’m sure I will be trying with my
middle schooler this year:
Be present. Know
what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important.
So many of my parents last year had no idea that their child was staying up
until all hours in the morning playing games. I heard more than once, “I
have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until
now.” I remind them that this is middle school, they are not bad kids, and
they are just testing the boundaries — so set them!
Control the Wi-Fi. I touched base with some of my parents after their children made
improvements in class, and I found that they had put in place simple household
internet controls. The kids had passwords to access the internet, and the
parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a
few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to “override”
Remove the temptation. Some families took all screens out of the children’s
bedrooms and stored cellphones in a locked charging box until morning. This
might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students this worked. He
was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He
later acknowledged that he needed help — beyond the gaming community.
Parental-control apps. I’ve had students tell their parents that they have online
homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps
can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making
the homework space at the dining room table or another central location can
make it easier to keep an eye on kids, too.
need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out middle
schoolers for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers
at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is
important. One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen
time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is
by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve
the right to change my mind.
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT VIOLENCE, CRIME, AND WAR
Exposure to graphic images, distressing information, and horrific
headlines can affect kids’ overall well-being.
shootings. Nuclear weapons. A robbery at your local corner store. Where do you
start when you have to explain this stuff to your kids? Today, issues involving
violence, crime, and war — whether they’re in popular shows, video games,
books, or news coverage — reach even the youngest kids. And with wall-to-wall
TV coverage, constant social media updates, streaming services that broadcast
age-inappropriate content any time of day, plus the internet itself, you have
to have a plan for discussing even the worst of the worst in a way that’s
age-appropriate, that helps kids understand, and that doesn’t cause more harm.
Don’t bring it up —
unless you think they know something. There’s no reason
to bring up school shootings, terrorist attacks, threats of war, or the like
with young kids. If you suspect they do know something — for example, you hear
them talking about it during their play — you can ask them about it and see if
it’s something that needs further discussion.
Affirm that your
family’s safe. In the case of scary news, such as wilderness fires
— even if you’re a little rattled — it’s important for young children to know
they’re safe, their family is OK, and someone is taking care of the problem.
Hugs and snuggles do wonders, too.
Simplify complex ideas
— and move on. Abstract ideas can complicate matters and may even
scare young kids. Use concrete terms and familiar references your kid will
understand, and try not to overexplain. About a mass shooting, say, “A man
who was very, very confused and angry took a gun and shot people. The police
are working to make sure people are safe.”
“real” and “pretend.” Young kids have rich
fantasy lives and mix up make-believe and reality. They may ask you if a scary
story is really true. Be honest, but don’t belabor a point.
Wait and see. Unless they
ask, you know they were exposed, or you think they know something, don’t feel
you have to discuss horrific news or explain heinous crimes such as rape,
beheadings, dismemberment, and drug-fueled rampages (especially to kids in the
younger end of this age range or who are sensitive). If kids show signs of
distress by acting anxious, regressing, or exhibiting some other tip-off that
something’s amiss — for example, they’re reluctant to go to school after the
latest school shooting — approach them and invite them to talk.
Talk … and listen. Older tweens hear about
issues related to violence, crime, and war on social media, YouTube, TV, and movies —
not always reliable sources for facts. Try to get a sense of what your kids
know before launching into an explanation, since you don’t want to distress
them further or open up a whole new can of worms. Feel them out by asking,
“What did you hear?,” “Where did you hear that?,”
“What do you know about it?,” and “What do you think about
Be honest and direct. Tweens can find out what
they want to know from different sources, and you want the truth to come from you. It’s
not necessary to go into extreme detail. About a family who held their kids
hostage, you can say, “The kids suffered many different kinds of abuse.
But they were rescued, and their parents were arrested. Often in cases of child
abuse, the parents are very sick with mental illness or other issues.”
in news and media. Talk to kids about how media outlets — including news agencies,
TV shows, movie companies, and game developers — use extreme subjects to get attention, whether it’s in
the form of clicks, viewership, or ticket sales. Share the old
newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and talk about why we may
be drawn to outrageous human behavior. This helps kids think critically about
the relative importance of issues, the words and images used to attract an
audience, and their own media choices.
Explain context and
offer perspective. With your life experience, knowledge, and wisdom, you can
explain the various circumstances around certain issues. This is the process
that gives things meaning and clarity — and it’s important for kids to be able
to make sense of negative and unpleasant things, too. To work through the
powerful emotions that images of beatings, blood, and human suffering can bring
up, kids have to learn to distance themselves from horrific events, understand
the underlying causes, and perhaps get involved in meaningful ways to make things
better, such as diplomacy and education.
Get them talking. High school years can be
tough, as teens start rejecting their parents’ ideas, becoming concerned with
what friends think, and developing their own voice. This separation can be
especially difficult when traumatic events occur or when you know they’re
interacting with mature media. To continue the kinds of conversations you had
when they were younger — and stay connected and relevant — resist the urge to
lecture and instead ask their opinions about things. Encourage them to support
their ideas with legitimate news sources, not just repeat what others have said. Say,
“We may not always agree, but I’m curious to hear what you have to
Accept their sources,
but expand their horizons. Trending topics capture the headlines, but teens
are just as likely to run across provocative subjects, stories, and characters
on TV and in movies — such as the meth-making chemistry teacher of Breaking
Bad — that get users clicking, viewing, and sharing. Give teens the tools to view information critically,
whether they’re scrolling through Snapchat, Netflix or a free-speech site for
extremists such as 4chan and 8chan. Teach them to question what they see by
asking themselves, “Who made this?,” “Why did they make
it?,” “What’s its point of view?,” “What information isn’t
included?,” and “What would my friends think of this?” These
media-literacy questions help teens evaluate information, think beyond the clickbait headline or funny meme, and
look more deeply into a topic.
My older daughter was less than a week old when the
Sandy Hook school shooting happened. I remember clutching her body to my chest
and watching cable news, horrified by the world I had brought her into. For
days after, I worried about taking her outside our home and into crowded
places. I had a pungent, spiky fear that felt very real in the moment. If
someone could gun down a bunch of 6-year-olds, I thought at the time, the
notion of safety was ephemeral.
Parenting is an ongoing process of learning to
tolerate the idea “that you cannot entirely keep your children safe,” said Dr.
Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York City, who
called this struggle the “existential paradox” of parenthood.
I spoke to two psychiatrists and two pediatricians about
how parents — and their children — can deal with increased anxiety and fear in
the aftermath of these shootings.
Understand that a few days of
increased anxiety is normal. “It’s an appropriate response
to a really traumatic event,” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical
assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of
Medicine. If you need more downtime at home in the few days after such
upsetting violence, you should feel empowered to take that space, Dr. Lakshmin
said. And acknowledging your feelings is key — avoiding or pushing them down
won’t make them go away.
Reach out to parent friends. Connecting with your community to talk through fears can help, Dr.
Lakshmin said. That’s particularly true for parents of color or those from
religious minorities, who may feel especially acute anxiety in this moment
because of the white extremist ideology of
many recent mass shooters.
Try to stick to your routine. “Every time a shooting happens, our sense of reality falls apart,”
Dr. Lakshmin said. “The world you thought you were living in is not the world
you’re actually in.” So trying to maintain your routine keeps you tethered to
your day-to-day life. Overcoming your fears by taking your kids to the park, to
the store or to camp as planned can help to keep the anxiety from overwhelming
Channel anxiety into action. Finding a way to contribute in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether
by volunteering with organizations that work to prevent mass shootings or by
helping a community affected, can help redirect your fears, Dr. Sacks
said. The El Paso Times published
recommendations for its community, as did the Dayton Daily News.
Step away from the news. If you find that reading or viewing the details of violent events
is triggering your anxiety, try to edit your media diet, Dr. Sacks said. “I do
hear from parents that they can be drawn to catastrophic things that happen
with children in the news,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful to them, but
they feel a pull toward these stories in their empathy and identification.”
It’s helpful to minimize kids’ exposure to news as well,
said Dr. Jackie Douge, M.D., a pediatrician based in Maryland and a fellow at
the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Don’t dodge the hard
conversations. If you suspect your kids know about
an incidence of mass violence, you should ask them what they have heard, said
Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., an attending physician at the Ann and Robert H.
Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “You don’t want to give so much
information that you’re introducing trauma yourself,” Dr. Heard-Garris said.
But “you also want them to trust you,” that you’re not hiding difficult things
from them. If you start with what they know, you “can try to address any
misconceptions, or rumors, any anxieties right then and there,” she said.
While “it’s affecting all children” negatively to hear about particular communities singled out for violence, Dr. Heard-Garris said, parents of kids who hear about their religious or racial communities being targeted can send them the following message: “I know there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, but it’s my job as a parent to try to keep you safe.”
Know when to get help. If you find that you’re anxious for more than a week, or if your
sleep, eating or other routines are disrupted, it may be time to talk to a
therapist. “If you’re finding these intrusive thoughts are not controllable and
they become so loud that you’re taking a circuitous route to get to work, or
not letting your kids go to soccer practice, that’s when I would say it’s time
to see a therapist and have a more structured space to unpack these fears,” Dr.
The same goes for your kids — a little additional fear
or anxiety is normal after traumatic events, but if their anxiety is affecting
their relationships, sleep or their behavior at school, talk to your primary
care provider, Dr. Douge said.
Your child’s fears may be triggered again by school
lockdown drills, which millions of children
experience each year, and which may leave kids traumatized. All
you can do with the recurrence of fear is to reassure kids that these tragic
events are still rare, overall, and that their home is a safe place for them to
unpack their worries. Tell them: “Your teachers, your doctor, your pastor or
rabbi, we love and care about you,” Dr. Heard-Garris said, and that home is
“where they have this refuge from this crazy world.”
Can we really achieve world peace? Using findings from studies on love and diplomacy, Julie Schwartz Gottman explores how to create peace in the world by dissecting human communication in her TEDx Talk, World Peace Starts at Home.
She explains that no matter the argument, both diplomats and couples are most successful when they postpone persuasion until they understand each other’s position.
As she creates more peace in the home through the work of The Gottman Institute, Julie hopes to also create more peace in the world.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.