By Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
Photo: Claire Holt
Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
The single most important relationship in your child's life is the one she finds with you. What happens when you add a tablet, smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer that routinely pulls you away? What does it mean when you use screens and apps as a pacifier for your baby or toddler, or as a babysitter or teacher? Tech not only changes the iconic picture of the parent-child relationship–it changes the relationship itself. There are so many ways that tech expands our connectivity with each other and with the wider world. The challenge we all face now is managing our relationship with tech so that it doesn't take away from our relationship with our kids and family.
In my six months on the road since The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age was released, in deep conversation with kids, parents, an educators, the most asked question is "how?" How can I get a handle on this while my child is young? How can our family make some changes in habits we can all see aren't the best? Kids themselves are asking, too. They may rarely admit it to us as parents, but they want us to set limits, to show them how to set limits, to model a life offline that is rich and real.
Here are five ways to support a sustainable relationship with technology for you and your child:
- Let your infant and young child's room be a screen-free room. Let the space between you—playing, eating, strolling, care-giving—be tech free. Your child will join tech culture soon enough. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges a screen-free environment for children under two years old, and a thoughtful, limited exposure for the nursery and pre-school age child. In general, power down screens, pick up a book, and read or playfully engage with your child. Let your child plug into you.
- Don't let the magic of the screen replace the magic of real-life play. Make a list of four or five different non-screen activities, such as drawing, building with Legos or playing outside, and carry it with you so you can use it as a reminder. Unplugging from tech is a struggle for most of us; share that with your child, perhaps recruiting them to do something together. Know that when you model the struggle and the choice to unplug and do, you're showing them how it's done.
- Create rituals for you and your child that acknowledge you're turning your attention elsewhere. At designated times, give yourself the uninterrupted time to get your work done. But stay offline and present for at least 45 minutes from the moment you pick your child up from school or day care. Create your own Responsible Use Contract that everyone sticks to—including you! Be clear about what kinds of screen time are okay, where, and when. Through these conversations, your child becomes more self-aware, and understands the tech relationship as something to be managed, something for which we dictate the terms.
- Be picky about the types of tech-based media your child interacts with. Choose shows that teach them about the world around them in a way that is kind, hopeful and encouraging; not bratty, sarcastic, fast, or frightening. Pick any media exposure as carefully as you would pick a babysitter to leave alone with your baby. Common Sense Media is an excellent resource in this regard.
- Remember: With infants and young children, especially, an app is not a "safe distraction" like a stuffed animal or a musical mobile. Neurologically, it's a stimulant. When we give babies and toddlers stimulants instead of a calming attention and offer tech distractions from ordinary life instead of guidance through it, we teach them at a very young age to deal with life's ups and downs by plugging into external sources to self-regulate rather than develop those skills within. Resist the urge to let tech replace genuine parental support and guidance through moments of frustration, boredom, or other dissatisfaction.