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The Evolution of Parental Controls

Monitoring vs. mentoring kids’ media use in the digital age

Published on: April 25, 2019

mother daughter screen time

Ten years ago, academic counselor and author Ana Homayoun noticed a shift in her tween and teen students. Twenty years ago, kids noted that their top distractions were food, daydreaming, siblings and pets. But a decade ago, they began putting technology at the top of this list. Recently, a sophomore student told Homayoun that his biggest distraction is YouTube.

“I asked him to check screen-time usage on his phone. He’d spent 40 hours on it in the previous week: 20 hours on YouTube, 10 hours on Snapchat, and the rest of the time on Instagram, texting and music,” says Homayoun. In her book “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World,” she outlines pragmatic strategies for effective self-regulation and overall safety and wellness with respect to digital media use. In the past year alone, Homayoun has visited 35 cities to talk about social media wellness with students and their parents.

While parents might panic to hear that their child spends more than 40 hours each week focused on tech, Homayoun recommends they take a calmer approach. “It’s important for parents to switch their attitude from fear, anger and frustration to compassion, understanding and empathy. Learning how to manage tech is part of this journey to adulthood,” she says, while noting that most adults are also grappling with their own tech usage issues. 

In addition to this accepting attitude, what other strategies can parents adopt to help teens manage tech? A recent Pew Research Center study showed that 65 percent of the 1,000 parents surveyed worry that their kids are spending too much time online. Some of these surveyed parents (58 percent) monitor their teens’ tech usage; others use parental controls to restrict site access (52 percent); and some limit when and how long their teens can be online or use their smartphones (58 percent).

We asked experts who help teens manage digital distractions about viable ways parents can help guide their teens. While not everyone agreed on tactics, they all believe our kids are hungry for such guidance. “Kids are relieved when I say, ‘Hey, I know this tech landscape is new and different, and that you feel exhausted, overwhelmed and stressed out,’” says Homayoun. “They react with positivity to the strategies I share with them.”

Scaffolding to develop self-control

Before teens can take their driver’s license test in Washington state, parents need to drive with them for 50 hours. Mediating our child’s use of tech and media requires no less of a commitment. “With tech, we want to help our kids build up their self-control around usage before we let them handle it all by themselves,” says Jo Langford, a local therapist and author of “Tech Talk/s!: The Complete Guide to Parenting Around Online Safety, Social Media and Self(ie) Esteem!

In America, the average age for a child to have their own smartphone is a little older than 10, although the new media campaign Wait Until 8th has some parents pledging to hold off on adding phones to their kids’ tech diet until the eighth grade. Of course, technology includes many moving parts, from YouTube and Netflix consumption to Kindle and iPad use to video gaming. “The goal is to shift from parent-based decision-making to child-based decision-making over 18 years. Instead of assuming your child can’t manage phone and tech usage, think about scaffolding it so they know how to manage it,” says parenting coach and licensed social worker Sarina Behar Natkin.

It can’t just be a rule — it has to be steeped in values.

For example, Natkin’s eighth-grader received a phone in the sixth grade, but she could only use it for the bus app and to call her parents. She started texting in seventh grade, but she can only text classmates and family. The daughter’s phone stays downstairs — not in her bedroom — and isn’t available after 8 p.m. From the time their daughters were preschoolers, Natkin and her husband have been talking with them about who owns digital images and communication once it leaves their hands and devices. Even though she’s had hundreds of small-moment check-ins and longer conversations with her daughters about digital citizenship, Natkin still doesn’t feel her eldest is ready to manage the complex emotions that come with social media usage.

“While my daughter tells me nobody is texting anymore and everyone is on social media, we decided to hold off and may let her try one private social media account at age 14. This is based on my specific child, because I know she’s really focused on identity and the question of ‘How do I belong in my world?’” says Natkin.

That’s the rub with making tech rules for our kids: There’s no one rule that fits every user. That’s why Langford is a big believer in using individualized contracts for tech usage. When families create media contracts together, they can talk about their family values as the reasoning behind the policies they establish, says Langford.

“It can’t just be a rule — it has to be steeped in values. For instance, in our family, we say it’s not good for your brain or your heart to be plugged in all the time,” says Langford. “Everyone in the family follows a 50 percent rule during walks together, meaning devices can only be used for half of the walk. My wife and I often ask our kids to unplug within a 10-minute timeframe to help them learn self-control, too.”

Such contracts for tweens and young teens set up guardrails for kids to learn safe and respectful tech usage while also helping them build self-control muscles, says Langford, who adds that contracts evolve as kids age and acquire skills. For example, Langford’s daughter wants a smartphone when she starts middle school in a few months, but he’s let her know this will only happen if she becomes more adept at unplugging from her iPad.

To monitor or not to monitor: That is the question

If you’re looking to stir up a lively debate, just ask a roomful of parents if they believe in monitoring their kids’ tech usage. If you do decide to monitor your child’s media use and access, know that monitoring technology changes often, and kids learn how to get around it quickly. A parent who uses monitoring software because her 14-year-old has an addiction issue with gaming and tech says she changes her monitoring game plan every six months or so. She researches monitoring technology online, calls tech companies when she needs help with monitoring one of their products, and talks to other parents to gather information about monitoring software and best practices.

Homayoun says that using different monitoring apps may be part of a person’s parenting experience based on their child’s needs. “My approach is to help parents proactively have conversations about technology with their child,” she says. “If parents use monitoring, they should be open with their kids about this, letting them know they have full access to their tech devices. It’s not a breach of trust if everyone knows monitoring is taking place.”

When public safety officers come to a school in response to a problem, they always ask if the parents have checked their kids’ phones, because parents are legally responsible for what is on their kids’ phones, explains Homayoun. “Kids will make mistakes because mistakes are part of a growth process. If you openly have conversations about your access to their tech, kids can develop buy-in as to how this growth process works, as well as offer strategies themselves for how tech usage will work in your family,” she says.

teens and screens

Self-regulation of tech usage and the teen brain

Have you ever tried breaking your own unruly tech habit — say, limiting Facebook time or not looking at your phone while making dinner? Now imagine changing such a habit while your brain is being remodeled, from the onset of puberty through your mid- to late-20s. The prefrontal cortex, which helps people plan, solve problems, weigh consequences and control impulses, isn’t fully developed during this lengthy remodeling phase. Teen brains actually work differently than adult brains, and when it comes to processing what teens are feeling, their brains rely more on the amygdala, the brain’s “alarm circuit,” which guides instinctual (“gut”) reactions and controls autonomic responses associated with fear, arousal and emotional stimulation. Only as teens grow older does the brain’s center of activity begin to shift more toward the reasoning frontal cortex and away from the cruder response of the amygdala.

While everybody needs structure to navigate tech usage, teens have a trickier time with tech management because of this brain remodeling process and the identity-building work that goes on in these years, says Homayoun. When a teen asks her to help change their tech habits, she outlines three steps: awareness, compartmentalization and consistency. “Teens can use Apple’s Screen Time or any number of apps to see where and how they are using their phones and iPads. Nonjudgmental awareness is needed before kids can set goals to change their habits.”

Parents can help kids learn how to compartmentalize their screen time, says Homayoun, by modeling how to move from multitasking (e.g., texting while making dinner) to monotasking (just making dinner). “Many kids have never set a timer and focused on working on one task for 10–15 minutes. But I tell students that if they work up to only doing their homework for 25 minutes at a time with five-minute breaks in between, suddenly homework becomes much more relaxing and manageable,” says Homayoun. She notes that her students like the Forest app and blocking apps like SelfControl to help them minimize distractions during focused work times.

The last piece in mastering self-regulation is consistency: daily and weekly opportunities to be totally off-line. “Kids often tell me they wish their parents would take away their phones for part of every day. It’s easier to make a parent the bad guy than manage tech 24 hours a day themselves,” says Homayoun, who notes that some older teens can manage dual screens with social media on one screen and their work on another screen, while other kids totally need to block out the fun in order to get their work done.

A formal survey she conducted during her last middle school visit showed that 42 percent of the students had their phones in their room all night long, and, correspondingly, that 39 percent of the students also felt sleep-deprived. “Having consistent times where they are off-line really does help kids focus on wellness — food, sleep and stress management,” says Homayoun. “Proactive strategies help prevent tech overuse while teaching kids skills to manage self-regulation.” 

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