How families can develop productive rules for screen time

With the holidays quickly approaching, there’s one item that nearly every kid wants: a mobile phone or tablet equipped with the latest games and social apps.

That prospect can be scary for adults, especially those who are considering entrusting younger children with a digital device for the first time.

Pamela Wisniewski

Pamela Wisniewski, an expert in adolescent online safety and an associate professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University, says families are right to be concerned. But there are proven strategies to keep kids and parents safe and happy when it comes to navigating the tricky terrain of making household rules for devices.

Here, Wisniewski, who leads the Socio-Technical Interaction Research (STIR) lab at Vanderbilt, shares tips that may help keep the peace during the holidays—and allow everyone to enjoy their new tech toys.

  1. Set Boundaries for the Whole Family

If you’re constantly glued to your phone or laptop while trying to impose restrictions on a child’s technology use, they’ll be the first to point out the hypocrisy, Wisniewski says. She suggests setting healthy boundaries and time limits for the entire family, not just the kids. “We need to lead by example.” In fact, Wisniewski is currently working on a new research program called “Teenovate” where adolescents help develop effective tools and practical strategies to keep teens safe online.

  1. Take Time to Unplug…Mostly

At the holidays especially, it’s important that families spend quality time together away from the distractions of technology. “Take time to unplug for the holidays,” Wisniewski says. “But also realize that some screen time may be necessary and enjoyable.” Kids who are home from school for the holidays will want to stay connected with friends or play that new video game they just got from their cousin or figure out all the features of their shiny new smart phones, Wisniewski says. “As parents, we should be supportive and help guide them from the beginning on how to use technology within healthy limits.”

  1. Deploy Monitoring Apps Sparingly

Apps that monitor a child’s screen time or whereabout are useful only for so long. Wisniewski’s research has shown that taking a more collaborative—rather than a heavy-handed—approach to technology mediation is the best form of digital parenting. “Parental monitoring apps are really only appropriate and effective to use with younger children,” Wisniewski says. “Once a teen reaches 14 or 15, they want to know you trust them with some level of privacy to make good decisions on their own.”

  1. Plan Ahead

“If tweens and teens will be getting their first cell phone or tablet over the holidays, parents should start thinking now about how to mediate technology usage inside and outside the home,” Wisniewski says. One way to do this might be to develop a family contract on intentional technology use and make sure there is buy-in from the entire family. “That way,” she says, “you can come up with strategies together for making the most of being connected and having healthy practices around technology use that keep kids safe online.”