10/24/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

When Do Kids Need To Hit The 'Off' Switch?

Picture this: You're gathered at the dinner table with your family, and the mood is light and relaxed. No one is in a hurry to leave, rush off to check email, or update a Facebook status. After having been fed by the meal itself, everyone is enjoying the emotional nourishment that comes from being together.

Or how about this? Your 15-year-old is sitting at the kitchen table, working on her English essay. She stays reasonably focused -- taking breaks now and then but returning to the task at hand --and wraps up her assignment by 9 p.m., spending an hour checking in with her online pals (or reading her book!) and then heads off to bed, waking up well rested after a full night of sleep.
Or perhaps a bevy of 12-year-olds show up at your house to hang out with your son. Instead of sitting in his room, each staring at a screen and barely aware of one another, they head outside to shoot hoops, and then descend upon the kitchen to cook up a feast.

Does this sound far-fetched to you? It will, to many. In an extraordinarly brief span of time, the constant and compelling presence of digital devices have radically changed the look of families, downtime, and childhood.

Many parents have come to accept that their kids cannot endure sitting at dinner longer than it takes to inhale their food, are incapable of doing homework without simultaneously texting and posting, will routinely stay up past one in the morning chatting with online pals, and can't possibly hang out with friends doing something as old-fashioned as playing outdoors.

Parent after parent tells me that they are at a loss for managing the powerful pull of their kids' digital devices. "My daughter is barely getting five hours of sleep because she's online until the wee hours of the night." "My son flies into a rage when I try to take away his laptop." "Our kids hardly go outdoors anymore -- all they want to do is sit in front of their computer, watching YouTube videos and chatting with online friends who they don't even know."

At the core of these complaints is a sense of powerlessness and confusion. We want our kids to be up to speed with the latest technology, recognizing how important it is that they develop skill and comfort in the digital world. Not only that, their teachers are asking for most assignments to be turned in online. How do we tell them to hit the "Off" switch when there are so many reasons to stay plugged in? Where do we draw the line? How do we parent when we're all stumbling to find our way?

It is indeed uncharted territory. We need to be the captain of the ship our kids need -- calmly and confidently navigating through calm and stormy seas. With information, guidance and support, we can help our children develop habits of balanced screen use so they can benefit from them, without being swallowed into the black hole that these devices can become.

I look forward to the return of teens losing themselves in a good book, children playing with real-life friends, and families lingering at the dinner table long after the meal is done.

This post is a part of Screen Sense, a place for parents to discuss what it's like to raise the digital generation.