Ah... technology. You wicked smart thing you. I have a love/hate relationship with the digital world that's as dysfunctional as it sounds. I need to check Twitter! I wish I could close all my accounts and live off the grid! Did you see that video about how to make salted caramel chocolate pie in 5 minutes floating around on Facebook today?!? Ugh, Instagram is making us all stupid. See, DYSFUNCTIONAL.
The reality? Social media and all things tech are here to stay and they're only going to get bigger and bigger as our kids grow bigger and bigger. So we (as parents) must be bigger than the tech itself.
We must manage. We must set limits. We must conquer. We must outsmart.
Why? Because even though we might not like to admit it, we're kinda scared of tech. (I am, at least.) What does it do to our kids' brains? Will it make them lazy? Will it make them sharper? Will it disconnect them as a generation or bond them in ways we never knew possible as a generation that grew up without it? Yeah, I've done a segment (or four or five or ten) about this... Hey, my daughters are both under the age of six, but this is the age to start setting a gold standard of guidelines, right?
I remember reading digital mogul and mom Randi Zuckerberg's book "Dot Complicated" a few years ago and was fascinated by her stories of how she was a bit challenged by social media and how she started navigating it in a different way when she became a parent for the first time. Randi's stories [from the book] pop into my head every so often -- and they serve as a grounding force of inspiration for me to take hold of technology and make it my own -- for myself and for my family. If she had to pay attention and figure things out for her family, then so must we!
So, I've now taken hold of our family tech usage. And I ain't letting go.
How do I outsmart all the tech that's seemingly overtaking us? I expose my children but I also stick to rules that, I've learned, mitigate all those scary, negative effects (real or manufactured) of technology on our kids. Here come my top tips:
Problem #1: Tech disconnects our relationships.
Solution #1: No devices at dinner, restaurants included -- this goes for both my husband and myself too (yes, I get annoyed if he looks at his phone).
Problem #2: Tech disrupts our ability to sleep productively.
Solution #2: No devices after 6:30pm -- TV, iPads, phones (fine, I violate this all the time in the name of finishing up work at night... ok fine, I'm a hypocrite).
Problem #3: Screen time tends to 'zone out' small kids and scientifically affect the development of their brains if used for prolonged periods of time (seriously... look it up).
Solution #3: No devices at our house are to be used for more than one hour at a time -- for the kids, that is (unless we're watching a movie). AND, drumroll please... co-watch, co-play and talk-during tech activity! (This is THE TIP, people. My big go-to. Recommended by pediatricians and everything.) Every expert I've talked to about this -- doctors, child development experts, mindful parenting therapist friends, etc -- all agree that, if parents interact with kids while tech experience and exposure is happening, the negative effects of what we're all scared of diminish significantly.
So yeah, I'll flip on the TV and then shout questions to my girls about what they're watching. "What are Shimmer and Shine doing now?" and "Has Elmo figured out his alphabet yet?" and "Does Elena like being a princess?" I also ask if I can play one puzzle on the iPad with them. You know, just to break the inevitable and impending zone-out and remind them that human interaction is absolutely fun and important while they're enjoying the digital world too.
No, it doesn't ruin the experience. No, it doesn't make anyone cranky (usually). No, it's not difficult to come up with B.S. questions just for a quick fix to fend off brain-rotting in young children.
But yes, it does make me feel better as a parent -- to interact, to participate, to teach them that you can have the best of both worlds, real and digital, in this most complicated one we're living in. Because, if we don't stick to our own rules and teach our kids what's what now, the chances of them learning how to manage, limit, conquer and outsmart future tech and media when they're adults will most likely never happen. And that's just not smart.
How do you outsmart the negative effects of tech at your house?
Jill Simonian is a nationally-recognized Parenting Lifestyle Contributor and author and has appeared on TODAY as part of the #ParentingTeam. Her personal blog is TheFabMom.com. Follow Jill on Twitter @jillsimonian and connect with her on Facebook.