Unplugged

By Kristen Castillo

May 20, 2013 5 min read

Mother of three Melissa Bessey says her kids are "all very tech-savvy." The kids -- ages 2, 4 and 6 -- share an iPad and have access to a laptop and a desktop computer. The 4-year-old and 6-year-old also both have their own iPod Touch.

Despite all the access to technology, there are rules.

"All of our kids are allowed to use their 'i' devices daily, as long as they have 1) helped with their household chores and 2) done their schoolwork," Bessey explains, noting that all the devices have only educational apps and games, as well as parental controls.

"Technology is everywhere, 24/7," says Tim Elmore, founder and president of Growing Leaders, a youth leadership development nonprofit. "We are raising the first generation of kids that don't need adults for information."

He says Web-savvy kids have information at their fingertips but still need parents and teachers to interpret the information.

*Limiting Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or "entertainment media" for kids younger than 2, explaining that young kids "learn best by interacting with people, not screens."

AAP limits screen time for older kids, suggesting no more than two hours of entertainment media each day.

"This allows for kids over 2 to have quality screen time a day with families watching a show, playing some games," says pediatrician Gwenn O'Keeffe, CEO and editor-in-chief of Pediatrics Now, noting that the time limit "doesn't include screen time for older kids who need to use computers" or other devices for homework.

Elmore stresses the need to balance screen time with face time.

"We can't entirely deprive our children of these wonderful tools, because they will need the skills learned from them to function in this world," he says, explaining how important it is for kids to learn "face-to-face communication skills."

*Tech Troubles

Here's a reason to unplug: Kids who routinely play games or watch TV before bedtime are at risk for disturbed sleep.

"The light that emanates from all electronics can sabotage sleep, as well, because it interferes with the production of our relaxing sleepy-time hormone, melatonin," says sleep consultant Dana Obleman, who's also the author of "The Sleep Sense Program."

That's why her rule is to turn off "electronics of any kind" at least an hour before bedtime.

"Kids' evening routine should be focused on getting them mentally relaxed and ready to fall asleep," says Obleman, who suggests replacing technology at night with activities such as playing a board game, coloring or reading books.

*Setting Rules

Parents need to establish tech rules for the family.

"The rules and time limits parents place on device usage vary greatly," says Spencer Whitman, CEO of AppCertain, a free service that helps parents monitor the apps their kids download. "Perhaps not surprisingly, as kids get older, there are less restrictions enforced."

Limiting technology use by kids older than 15 can be challenging.

"Instead of limiting total time spent on a device, we recommend enforcing one to three hours of 'no tech' time," Whitman says. "In order to learn how to be a responsible user in the digital age, we encourage parents to talk with their children and discuss reasonable limits."

AAP encourages parents to set up "screen-free" zones in certain areas of the home, such as kids' bedrooms, where there are no TVs, computers or video games.

"The concept is that kids need time with families without screens and digital gizmos," O'Keeffe says. "Beyond these 'zones,' many of us also encourage families to find times to just unplug regularly. For example, use weekends to just shut off cellphones and go off the grid for a bit."

*Setting a Good Example

Parents need to be consistent in enforcing the rules. They also need to set a good example for their kids by turning off their phones, closing their laptops and shutting down other devices for meals and family time.

"If we make it a homewide policy that no one uses cellphones at the dinner table and place limits on Internet usage each day, there will be less of a fight with our kids," Elmore says.

Bessey, who runs Give The Kids a Voice, a website for kids where her 6-year-old daughter blogs, says she and her husband are very involved with the kids' use of technology.

"We talk to them about which apps they like and why, etc., and when they make their way to YouTube, we try to monitor what they are finding and have many discussions about videos they've discovered," she says.

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