One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is about their children’s use of technology. During the pandemic, it became even more of a concern. Children’s regular activities were curbed and they become more and more dependent on their phones and tablets for school, recreation and social interactions. It's become nearly impossible to separate our kids from their devices.

Many parents admit (myself included) that it’s difficult to be consistent with rules surrounding devices. Our schedules have become unpredictable, we are working from home, tied to our own smartphones and computers.

But children’s mental health has taken a dive. Anxiety, sadness, and weight gain have been reported by parents and other mental health professionals. Many children are showing signs of addiction:

  • Switching between multiple devices and programs (social networking, texting, gaming, etc.)
  • Extreme reactions when separated from their device
  • Impatience, irritability, restlessness, inability to focus in school when separated from their phone
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased social challenges

We need to try to break the cycle and maintain some order.

Here are some ideas that can help:

1. Have discussions:

We want to avoid nagging and harassing our kids about their phone use. It’s best if we open up the conversation calmly, with a focus towards solutions. During dinner you can say, “I feel like we are fighting a lot about our phone and tablet use. It feels like it is getting to be too much. What can we do to use our devices safely?”

Keep the conversations ongoing. Ask your family periodically:

“How do you think we are doing with our tech use? Too much? Too little?”
“How can we spend more time together, outdoors and less time on our phones?”

Finally, be humble and ask: “How do you think Daddy and I are doing with our tech use? Are we being good role models?”

2. Be Real:

According to Eli Mermelstien, an addiction specialist, children need to be made aware of the dangers of the digital world. You do want to let children know that there are bad people out there who might use your information or pictures in inappropriate ways. Once a picture or information is sent out into cyberspace it is always out there. Teens need to know that colleges and future employers will look at their social media posts.

3. Let them overhear you:

As mentioned above, we do need to let our children know about the drawbacks of social media and the digital world. However, telling kids directly what you think is wrong with technology usually falls on deaf ears. Kids often respond with eye rolls, defensiveness and arguments. However, if you discuss the same ideas within earshot of your kids with another adult, they have a better chance of listening to your opinion and even taking it to heart.

So, the next time your child is withing hearing range, you can share with your spouse or friend:

“I just heard an article about the rise of cell-phone addiction in young kids. I am concerned for our family.”
“Social media use is affecting the mental health of kids. More kids are feeling anxious and even depressed.”
“One of the kids at school sent and inappropriate picture. It got into the hands of many kids. It was not a good situation.”

4. It’s Not All Bad:

Don't discount all the good technology has brought about. We want to acknowledge that our smartphones help us learn so much about the world, read more books, and stay in touch with family and friends. I love Facetiming with my son in Israel and my granddaughter.

Only then can we talk about the drawbacks. We want to focus on the fact that we might not be engaging in hobbies that we love, like baseball, puzzles, karate or gardening or how it might keep us from the simple joys of just hanging out with friends and family in real time.

5. Role modeling:

The best thing we can for our kids is to be a living example. We need to be mindful of just how much time our kids see us using our devices.

We can also talk about our struggles to maintain a balance and our own attempts to rein in our behavior:

“I am really having trouble with my smartphone. I think I am spending too much time on it. I am going to start putting it away at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I am not going to bring it into my bedroom. I am going to start that and see if that helps.”
“I am going to disable my notifications and turn my sound down. When I hear that pinging and dinging, I can’t control my curiosity. I need to see who is texting and what’s the latest news flash. I think this will help!”

According to the Digital Citizen Project, we should discuss when we are digitally disconnecting and why. We can also share how good it feels when we unplug:

“I am so glad we have Shabbos! A day where I am free from my phone! What a pleasure!”

6. Parental Control:

Your job is to keep your kids safe and that means online as well. Filters should be installed on your child’s phone so they access to only appropriate websites.

Google/Android and iPhone platforms come with tools for limiting phone use. (Google Digital Wellness and Screen Time for iPhone) They allow parents to remotely monitor phone and app usage, set screen-time limits, and lock devices for set amounts of time.

Mermelstein urges parents to educate themselves about the apps their kids are downloading to their phone by trying it out themselves.

7. Set boundaries:

It is helpful to set up times or places in your home that are device-free. Families need time for their relationships to grow and flourish. We need to interact with one another without any distractions. One mom I know does not allow phones in her kid’s bedrooms. They need to use their phones in the main areas of the house.

The Digital Citizen Project recommends that all digital engagement should be public, doors should be open when anyone is on their devices. Another mom has made a rule that there are no phones in her kitchen. At dinner time have your kids (and your spouse) put their phones on an out of the way counter with their ringers and notifications off.

At bedtime, have a central charging station where kids deposit their phones. It has been well document that the artificial light interferes with healthy sleep patterns. It is best to turn off your phones an hour before bedtime.

8. Get your children involved:

Mermelstein recommends brainstorming and deciding along with your child the rules for phone and device usage. When they have a say, they are more likely to stick to the rules.

If you can, give your child a forewarning: “Phones are going to be turned off in 5 minutes. You need to start wrapping up your game.

Try to avoid turning off the phone arbitrarily or using the parental control as a punishment. It’s better if the timing is consistent daily (maybe with more leniency on the weekends or on vacation.)

9. Transparency:

Mermelstein also strongly suggests that children share their passwords with their parents. This way if they know that you will be looking at their phones periodically then they may think twice about posting anything inappropriate. If kids balk, you can say the following:

“I trust you; I don’t trust the digital world around you.”
“If you’re not hiding anything then it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
“As parents our responsibility is to keep you safe and that means online as well.”

The digital world is tough to navigate. Keeping the discussion going, recognizing the advantages, role modeling, setting boundaries and getting your kids involved, can all help.

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