In a typical family system there should be a hierarchy of knowledge and power with the parents at the top and the children at the bottom. When it comes to technology, however, often that hierarchy gets turned upside down. When children know more about technology than their parents, parents can feel intimidated by how facile their children are with new media, often even before the parents know that something new exists. My computer consultant, Michael, is 10 and he has been helping me out of technology problems since he was 9. This is not a joke. He simply knows more about it than I do and he has been extremely helpful and knowledgeable, regardless of the problem I present.
Dealing with technology in a family system takes special care and in my 2008 book, Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, I introduced the TALK Model of Parenting. I realize that MySpace is not the rage it once was, and four years in real time is equal to decades in techno-time, but the model is still valid and useful in our post-MySpace, social media, electronically-tethered world. Here are the components:
"T" is for Trust
With the media constantly highlighting scary aspects of the online world -- particularly for teens -- it is imperative that parents develop an environment of trust between themselves and their high-tech children, teens and even young adults. In a perfect world, parents should start the process by instituting weekly family meetings as soon as their children use ANY form of media or technology. Yes, this includes television. As soon as your kids start watching TV or you hand them your iPhone or iPad to keep them occupied, you should have family meetings. When kids are young these meetings should last no more than five minutes and the time should increase to no more than 15 minutes when they become teenagers. Everyone sits on the floor -- roughly equalizing height and, therefore, perceived power -- and the parents start by asking a question about technology. With little ones it might be something along the lines of, "What is your favorite TV show and what do you like about it?" My rule is that parents ask a question and then sit back and listen with a nonjudgmental attitude (and a smile on their faces) and use their parental radar to listen carefully for signs of potential issues. Being nonjudgmental helps develop trust. As the children age the talks lengthen and the questions focus more on psychological issues. For a teenager, I might ask something like, "I have heard that some kids get bullied online. Do you know anyone who has been bullied? What happened and how did they feel (or how do you think they felt)?" Then sit back and listen (and smile). Weekly meetings develop trust so that when your child encounters something online or anywhere in their electronic world that makes them uncomfortable they will come to you for your help.
There are also some parenting strategies that make developing trust more difficult. Checking your child's computer without their knowledge, installing technological filters (regardless of whether your child is aware of them or not) and severe, reactive punishments for misuse of technology all work against developing a sense of trust. Don't believe that your children won't know if you check up on them clandestinely. They will figure it out. Don't believe that if you install a filter on your child's computer they won't be able to figure out a workaround. Google "workaround" followed by the name of any tracking program, and you will find websites that show how to disable the software or even how to circumvent it without the installer (you) being aware that it is no longer functional.
"A" is for Assess
You should not allow children or even teenagers to use technology behind closed doors. Research shows that those children who have technology in their bedrooms -- in what I term a "TechnoCocoon" -- are more likely to have problems surrounding their use including sleep difficulties and misuse of the technology. Ideally, technology should be placed in a common area and parents should be able to observe at any time. If that is not possible, and the technology needs to be in a bedroom, parents need to institute an open-door policy whereby they are allowed to walk in and look at what is on the screen or examine text messages or whatever activity is ongoing. Beware that your kids may suddenly close windows or hide screens when you walk by. Practice good behavioral parenting and set up contingencies for this occurrence. For example, if you think that your teenager is closing screens he doesn't want you to see, then set up a contingent punishment schedule such as: "The first time you close a screen you will lose your computer use for an hour. The second time it will double to two hours, and then four hours and so on." By the way, if you have no idea how to tell if your teenager closed a screen, ask him to show you how to access the history on his computer. That's where you will find the screens that were open and are now closed. If the history has been cleared that is a sign that your teen doesn't want you to see what he has been doing (and also should lead to the same penalties).
I highly recommend that you practice what is called "co-viewing," which is a term from television research where you watch TV with your kids and then discuss what you just saw on the screen in order to help them better understand and integrate the show material. You can do the same with computers. Sit down with your kids and ask them to show you stuff on the computer, smartphone or tablet -- interesting websites, new apps, new games -- and then talk to them about how they are using them and what they feel about any potential issues of problems.
As a special case of "A" you should plan to visit your teen's or young adult's social media sites. I tell parents to inform their kids that in 24 hours from now, you will sit with them and go through their Facebook page or whatever social media they use. This gives them time to clean it up and make it parent-ready. Have them show you what is there. Click on the links to friends' pages, particularly any "friends" that you do not know personally. And let them know that after this first look-see you will be stopping in periodically with no warning to see how they are doing. This should be fodder for a family discussion!
"L" is for Learn
You have to learn about the technologies that your kids are using. You don't have to be an expert but you do need to keep tabs on what is new in their virtual worlds. The best way is to ask your kids regularly to show you new stuff. Over time, they develop a sense of pride in their knowledge and skills and also you develop more of that trust that is one cornerstone of this model. Also ask your kids' friends parents what their kids are using and make it a habit to check in with any families where your kids spend a lot of time. When my younger daughter was growing up she used to do her homework at a neighbor's house with a girl in her classes and a third girl, whose parents did not allow her any Internet access during the school week, often joined them. Guess what they were doing? Yep! Hanging out on the Internet. You need to form an alliance with your children's parents and make a pact that everyone share what the kids are doing with technology at their homes, whether it is watching television (and particularly what channels they are allowed to watch), playing video games, surfing the net or using their smartphones. It is difficult enough to establish technology rules and guidelines for your own home, but it is imperative that you factor in other places where your children may encounter technology.
"K" is for Communicate
The other cornerstone of the TALK Model of Parenting is communication. (Yes, I know that "communication" starts with a "C" and not a "K," but a TALC Model of Parenting sounds too much like baby powder.) Communication means making opportunities to talk to your children about technology. The weekly family meetings that I described earlier will promote communication, particularly if you spend the majority of the time listening rather than commenting. Family dinners are an excellent time to talk about technology. Once again, it is important that dinner be a time without technology (and that means that mom and dad can't check their phones during dinner and the television must be turned off). If your family is having trouble ditching technology for a 45-minute dinner then try using "tech breaks" that I described in an earlier Huffington Post blog entitled, "Helping Your Children Study Amidst Distracting Technologies."
The key to communicating with your kids about technology is to ask them lots of open-ended questions relevant to their developmental age. As I mentioned earlier with family meetings, when they are young, ask very concrete questions such as "What is your favorite app on mommy's iPad?" As they get older you can ask more "social" questions such as "What's your favorite TV show?" or "Why do you like to text your friends?" or "What is fun about watching videos on YouTube?" or even, as they get older, "Do you know anyone who has been bullied online? What happened and how did they feel?" You can see that as your children get older, the topics evolve and involve more processing of their feelings. If you have been working on developing trust then they will be eager to talk about these issues. It is really all about Trust and "K"ommunication! Use any opportunity to foster both and don't let your kids escape through technology.
The American Pediatric Association says to avoid television and other media technologies for infants and children under age 2. That is a great guideline but, as all parents know, kids love technology and are attracted to it no matter what it is. And with such attractive technologies as tablets, smartphones and other portable technologies, it is very easy to entertain your child with technology. I have two rules of thumb that I teach parents. First and foremost is that when you infant or child is using technology they should not be alone. You should practice co-viewing and sit with your child and interact with them about what they are seeing and hearing. I just sat with a 6-month-old and tried out an iPad app called "Laugh & Learn (by Fisher-Price). All it involves is touching the screen to release a colorful heart, square, triangle or circle, which jump around and send out all sort of sparkles and talk to you telling what they are and what they are doing. Simple by adult standards, but the 6-month-old loved it for about five minutes. Yes, this is a form of media, but it is also a learning tool and stimulates the imagination.
My second rule of thumb is that the ratio of screen time to real-world time should be one to five for the youngest ones, meaning that for every minute of screen time there should be five minutes of non-screen time. So, the 6-month-old now needs some real-world time for 25 minutes. I took him outside, showed him flowers, let him try to shove one in his mouth, and then had him practice crawling (you should see how hard he will try to crawl to get at that iPad!).
As children get older they are going to want more media so the 1:5 ratio now starts to change to 2:5 and so on, so that when kids are in their preteens, the ratio should be 5:5 and then as they get older it will, by the nature of social media and e-communication, should end up at 5:1 when they are teenagers. HOWEVER, and this is important, the majority of this tech time should be spent co-viewing.
There are many ways to parent your high-tech children, teens and young adults surrounding their world of technology. The TALK Model is just one way that I have found helps parents flexibly engage their children while managing their technology use.