As parents, we want our kids to be savvy enough for the high-tech world they’re inhabiting. But how can we train our kids to use technology without turning into a family of screen time zombies? Fortunately there are lots of ways to use technology to learn and explore and even get closer as a family — but get ready, because they involve a fair amount of parental involvement.
Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.
1. Find Engaging Digital Activities That Teach Real Skills
Many parents of my generation (hi, millennials!) associate childhood screen time with one thing: sitting on the couch watching TV. But technology is pervasive in the lives of our children and they might be using their screens to master STEM skills, build imaginary worlds, or even learn a new language. Yet, instead of letting kids roam the digital world alone, experts recommend exploring together, modeling, and learning as you would with any other activity.
Finding a new family rhythm might mean rethinking our assumptions about what good and bad technology is: “Right off the bat, I’d say video games can be surprisingly good for the family,” says Scott Steinberg, author of Raising High Tech Kids: The Ultimate Web and Online Safety Guide. “They’re actually a fun and interactive way to bond. Whether the game involves exploring the past or attempting to conquer the universe, you can meet kids on their territory.” Steinberg recommends anything that involves dancing or movement, logic, math, and problem solving.
Beyond video games, there are plenty of ways to find activities that include the whole family, such as screening classic movies by a famous director once a week and then discussing them, building a computer together, learning to code, playing with virtual pets, collaborating as a family on a world-building game, or working on graphic design project that taps into imagination and creativity.
As a parent, focusing on how and what your kids are accomplishing while plugged in rather than just the number of hours is crucial. “There are many flavors of screen time. Some can get you up and thinking or burning calories,” says Steinberg. “The best kind is the kind that gets the entire family involved and talking.”
2. Be Involved
As a parent you ask questions about your children’s friends, teammates and teachers — so don’t abandon this practice in the digital realm.
Once kids are spending any kind of time with screens, it’s time to ask: What games are they playing? What YouTube videos do they like? What programs are they using? Who are they interacting with online?
Sit with your kids and get them to show you what they’re doing on the computer, including how they do it, and what they like about. “Make a point to let kids know that you’re going to be involved,” says Steinberg. “That doesn’t mean you have to spy. It means you’re at a safe distance keeping a watchful eye on them.”
This is also a good time to tell your kids that it’s important that they feel as comfortable in online communities as they would in an after-school activity or a team. “Let them know you’re not going to freak out if the come to you with challenges,” Steinberg says.
3. Model Your Own Digital Engagement
Like anything with parenting, creating a good habits in your kids requires good habits for yourself. Start this practice with transparency. Because kids don’t necessarily know what you’re up to as you sit there tapping away, you should show them how you use the phone to run family life. This helps them connect to you and teaches them “adulting” skills. When they see how you filter out information and prioritize important tasks, they will unconsciously imitate your choices.
“When we were growing up we’d hear our parents on the phone arranging playdates or ordering dinner,” says parenting writer (and mom of two) Carla Naumburg, author of Parenting in the Present Moment. “Now all kids see is the back of our phone — they don’t know what we’re doing. So I try to be transparent and tell them, for instance, ‘See, I’m looking at this menu to see if there’s food for you.”
And Naumburg notes that showing kids exactly why and how you use Twitter and Instagram enables you to model good digital citizenship and explain why for example, silly group selfies may be fun but posting mean comments on social media is inappropriate.
“Teach them to be as respectful and conscious of others in the virtual world as they would in the real world,” says Rosenberg.
4. Find Balance and Establish Boundaries
Everyone agrees that unplugging now and then can help recharge our personal batteries as well as our devices. But rather than implementing a universal guideline, find out what is reasonable for your own family.
Questions to ask when determining these parameters include: Does my kid get hyper or have trouble sleeping if he’s online after a certain hour? Does a tablet help him calm down during transitions? Do my kids spend time outdoors if their screen time is unregulated. And finally: Is the family having enough face-to face conversations?
Maybe you want to carve out a phone-free hour at dinner or breakfast, or maybe you prefer a more day-by-day approach. Whatever you decide, kids will benefit from boundaries and healthy limits (even if they whine about that). Most of all, they will appreciate having parents who help them navigate and comprehend the digital world and show them how to use it with wonder, inquisitiveness, and respect for themselves and others.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC.
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