What Is Good Parenting in the Digital Age?

12/21/2015 01:59 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2016

"I can't limit her phone... It's her own private world," a mother told me about her 14-year-old daughter. This teen girl, who I was working with in my practice as a child and adolescent psychologist, spent her life glued to her phone in her room. Cut off from her parents, she was depressed and failing her classes. Still, the mom insisted, "I don't have the right to limit her phone."

I knew my efforts to convince this mom to set tech limits were going to be a tough sell. Every day, parents live out their lives amid pop-culture messages that proclaim, "Limiting kids' tech is helicopter parenting," "Kids who are denied free access to technology don't learn vital digital-age skills," and on and on... Such advice has convinced many parents to do what former generations of parents would have never considered: to step away from guiding kids in the activity that dominates their lives.

What Happens When Parents Stop Parenting

A Kaiser Family Foundation report states: "The majority of 8- to 18-year-olds say they don't have any rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can spend with the medium." With virtually no limits, American teens now spend an astounding 8 hours a day multitasking between entertainment screens (including video games, online videos, social networks) and phones.

The consequences of parents stepping away from guiding kids' tech have been tragic. Stuck in corners and back rooms consumed by addictive devices, this generation of youth is denied the family involvement that is the most important contributor to their well-being. This is one reason pushing our kids to experience disturbingly high rates of psychiatric disorders, suicidal thoughts, and self-mutilation.

American children's overuse of entertainment tech also distracts them from the second most important factor in their lives: their connection and focus on school. This helps explain why American students' scores in reading and math fell from 2013 to 2015, and it illuminates why U.S. students are quickly falling behind their global competition in math, reading, and science.

When Parents Were More Involved

Throughout most of human history, parents have been more engaged in their children's lives than they are today about kids' technology. For 19th-century American frontier families, the notion that kids could ignore family and work in favor of playtime distractions would be unthinkable. The demanding environment these families faced made it imperative that children lived alongside their parents and pulled their weight at home. These kids' lives, while challenging, helped them feel that they mattered and encouraged them to become productive adults.

The Science of Good Parenting

Studies are revealing that these decades-old parenting principles are really what our kids need today. Diana Baumrind at UC Berkeley, and Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin at Stanford University, show us that parenting is defined by two factors: 1) responsiveness and 2) demandingness. Responsiveness measures how much we are warmly engaged in our children's lives, while demandingness gauges how much we provide expectations and supervise our children. Years of research show that the most effective way to raise children is authoritative parenting, which involves high levels of responsiveness and demandingness.

Authoritative parents strive to have a strong, loving relationship with their children, yet they also provide high expectations and definite limits that help kids meet expectations. Authoritative parenting provides remarkable benefits: Children raised with this parenting style are happier, less likely to have delinquent behavior, and tend to be more engaged in school and receive higher GPAs in high school and college than kids raised using other parenting styles.

Applying Authoritative Parenting to Kids' Tech

Because of authoritative parentings' tremendous advantages, it's vital that we apply its key elements (responsiveness and demandingness) to kids' tech. Providing children a high level of responsiveness means that we can't allow them to indulge in playtime gadgets at the expense of engaging with their families. Meals and outings should be about catching up with one another, not about kids snubbing parents in favor of their phones.

How can we apply authoritative parentings' high level of demandingness to kids' tech? We need to help children understand that learning should take precedence over digital self-amusements. Kids also need to be taught that technology should be used primarily as a tool rather than a toy. And because children's and teens' less developed brains deny them the ability to limit their own screen and phone use, parents need to provide kids plenty of structure and supervision.

Guess Who Uses Authoritative Parenting Principles

Interestingly, leading tech executives use authoritative parenting principles when raising their own children. The New York Times' article, "Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent," says that tech industry leaders emphasize the family connection (responsiveness) and tech limits (demandingness) to foster their children's health and success. Walter Isaacson, who wrote Steve Jobs' biography, observes, "Every evening Steve made it a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things.... No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer."

The Courage to Parent Authoritatively

Raising children with authoritative parenting provides them extraordinary benefits. However, there are challenges to not following the crowd. What can help you? Reach out to fellow parents. Use the powerful back channel parents have to talk amongst yourselves about the lives you want for your kids. Decide in your group, however large or small, that you will make your own decisions about how your children and teens are raised. By working together, we can give our kids the loving, strong guidance they need.