Episode 22: The 10 Commandments of Digital Parenting

Setting House Rules for Tech to Keep the Focus on What's Truly Important

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

The Backdrop

Ah, the holidays! Here in the good ol’ US of A, we gorge on turkey and cranberry sauce and then—the very next day—we begin spending billions of dollars. Hundreds of billions, actually. In fact, we’re on track to spend about $730 billion for the 2019 holiday season, a huge amount of money.

This holiday season, however, I’d like to offer all of you a gift that doesn’t involve consuming, although you will need to digest it. It’s the kind of gift you can use repeatedly for no additional cost, and—even better—it’s the gift of helping children.

Technology is hip, cool, and exciting, and it makes modern life both enjoyable and possible. Social media! Dating apps! Transportation as a service! Watches that count steps and tell the time?! Neato-! There’s so much to love and so much to explore. It’s endlessly fascinating and shiny.

The Problem

However, technology also has a dark side. It’s very, very, very addictive, especially to young minds. The science behind how technology affects young, developing minds is becoming clear, and it may even cause brain damage, health problems, depression, and loneliness as well as safety and sleep problems. This is serious, heavy stuff, and it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also why some tech executives are following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and restricting or eliminating their own children’s tech time at home.

Technology in your home is your responsibility. Do it safely or don’t do it.

The good news is that with a few common-sense changes to how we understand and use technology, we can help our children in some beneficial ways. Here are a few of the mindsets, philosophies, and methods I’d recommend to any parent when dealing with technology in the home. Because I’m dramatic and have a flair for the exciting, let’s call these “The 10 Commandments of Digital Parenting.”

1. Technology Isn’t Your Babysitter

As a parent, you’re responsible for far more than just handing your child a tablet and saying, “Have fun!” Having and using technology in the home is an investment in your child’s future, and that investment necessarily requires your personal time, patience, and dedication.

If you’re not ready to understand and monitor how technology gets used by your kids, then please, don’t give them any. I know that sounds harsh, but as parents, you’ll not only need to educate yourself about technology, but you’ll also need to get involved with it to be able to implement it safely for your children.

Technology in your home is your responsibility. Do it safely or don’t do it at all.

2. Teach Your Children To Be Upstanding Netizens

Do you let your children run screaming through the supermarket? Do you let them flash their genitals at the coffee shop? Do you stand idly and watch as they push or bully a child who doesn’t look like them?

No? Then under no circumstance should you ever let them behave that way online.

Good netizens start with good parenting. Take the time to teach your children how to be kind, both in-person and online. Show them the difference between kind and rude comments and make sure they understand the difference. And when you talk about “the birds and the bees,” include the part about online sex. That includes selfies, sexting, and nudity, even in pictures that disappear like the kind that Snapchat offers.

Disappearing pictures of your junk is still pictures of your junk.

Parents are responsible for ensuring their children understand that no one should ever touch them inappropriately or send them inappropriate photos. Ditto for teaching your children not to be the ones to do the touching or the sexting. Good netizens start with good parenting.

3. Limit, Restrict, or Prevent Screen Time for Any Minor

If you were born before, say, 1984, then you grew up without smartphones and tablets. Hell, you grew up without the Internet!! Instead, you found and played with actual frogs instead of looking at frog videos on an app; you played on the jungle gym in the backyard with friends instead of gathering online in a chat room; you played board games in person—seated at the very same table!—rather than being separated by technology and playing your turn in isolation.

And, somehow, magically, you turned out just fine. So remember: like you, your children will benefit from the same approach. Make that decision for them and help them become healthy, socialized humans in the process. Life online awaits them for the rest of their adult lives, but they only have one childhood. Let them enjoy it in the ways that you remember enjoying it too.

Invest in some Legos, Lincoln Logs, electronic science kits, and good old-fashioned trips to museums, theaters, and planetariums. And don’t forget hikes in the forest, walks on the beach, and paddling out on the lake to experience some nature up close.

4. Technology at Home Should Be an Earned Privilege, Not a Right

I encourage parents to think of technology—and social media in particular—as my parents used to think about television when I was a kid: a limited privilege only allowed in limited quantities and in limited locations. When we got home from school, we were permitted to watch one hour of cartoons on the TV in the basement before needing to start our homework. Homework was done in our bedrooms, where there were no TVs, phones, and computers. If our grades or behavior were poor, the privilege of TV was revoked, sometimes for as much as a month.

These same concepts are true for today’s parents regarding technology, so don’t shy away from strict rules and guidelines. Limit the total time online or in front of a screen, don’t allow computer technology in the bedroom, and treat technology as a privilege. More importantly, be vocal and let your kids know that you’re watching what they do, both in the real world and online. Remind them that this is for their own safety and for the safety of others.

5. Only Give Children Smartphones After They’ve Demonstrated Respect for the Technology and Balance With Its Usage

It’s important for you, as the parent, to understand the difference between a want and a need. Your 10-year-old child might want to text, email, and post on social media, but there’s no life-threatening need for this. Conversely, you - as the responsible parent - might need for your child to be able to contact you in an emergency situation. The first scenario requires a smartphone; the second only requires a “dumbphone,” like a flip phone. Flip phones are very inexpensive and still quite good at making phone calls.

Remember that using a smartphone requires a level of self-regulation that your children might not demonstrate until later than their peers. If you hold off on buying a smartphone, they’ll complain that their friends all have them. It’s probably true. Maybe they’ll complain that they look stupid without one or that they feel left out. Perhaps they will.

My advice? Smile, give them a hug and explain the truth to them: Tech addiction is real and can sometimes lead to depression and suicide. Tell them that you love them too much to give them this awesome tool and challenging responsibility before it’s time, regardless of what other families have decided to do.

6. Monitor What Your Children Do Online

Other than cartoons, we watched TV together as a family so that my folks could supervise what we watched. The same approach applies when your kids surf online. If you decide to allow your child to have and use a smartphone, you’re now also responsible for whatever that minor does with the smartphone—not just conceptually but legally. Many states will hold parents civilly liable for the abusive online actions of their children.

Give your children — and yourselves — the gift of human interaction.

There are many applications you can install on your smartphones or computers to monitor online activity. Be upfront about it with your children. Let them know you’re watching what they do both for their own safety and for the safety of others. You no more want your kid to be cyberbullied or stalked by a creeper than you’d want to learn that your child is the one doing the bullying or stalking. If you decide to allow your children to have and maintain social media accounts, inform them that you’ll be following them on those platforms—and then actually do that.

Treat their smartphone like you’d treat their bedroom: as a parent, you should always get access. Ensure you know the phone’s password to gain access. Include your finger or FaceID print in the phone’s memory as well. If you love your children, be transparent about this and be willing to confirm they’re keeping up their end of the bargain. That means you also get to follow their finsta accounts. :)

7. Restrict or Avoid Social Media

There’s no easy way to put this, so I won’t sugarcoat it: You should protect your children (and yourselves) from using social media for as long as you can. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist, wrote in the Atlantic that “teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.)” Considering that in 2011 for the first time in more than two decades, suicide caused more teen deaths than homicide, that kind of research is something to take seriously.

A 13-year-old girl Twenge interviewed said, “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” In most cases, social media isolates people. That isolation, in turn, causes loneliness, fear of missing out (also abbreviated as “FOMO”), and comparing someone’s curated online life of seeming-perfection to the varied, flawed lives we all actually live. Teens, whose minds are still developing, don’t understand this concept and are at high risk without your help and structure. Help your children not only by educating them about the differences between online life and real life but by giving them a real-life away from any electronic devices.

8. Strongly Restrict What Your Children Do Online

If you have children, I’m guessing you don’t want them surfing porn on your home network. Ditto for their friends when they’re visiting at your home. My advice is to make it impossible for that to happen.

Free tools are available for you to filter your home Wi-Fi network, blocking any or all questionable websites. The tool I use is OpenDNS, which works by changing just one set of preferences on your home Wi-Fi router to route all information from your router through the OpenDNS servers instead of through your internet service provider (ISP). This allows you to prevent content from any of the categories pictured below from loading on any device that connects to the internet via your router. Magic! And don’t worry: OpenDNS provides easy instructions on how to change the preferences for every kind of router.

Categories of websites you can block using the free OpenDNS service.

9. Make Mealtime About People, Not Technology

Nowadays, when my wife and I go out for dinner, we’re shocked by the number of families we see sitting at the dinner table who are all on their smartphones and tablets, not even interacting with one another. Sadly, we see the same when we visit the homes of our friends and family. We wonder how something like that could have happened, given that it wasn’t even possible 20 years ago.

Give your children—and yourselves—the gift of human interaction. Leave the technology away from the table when you’re eating together as a family. No text, social media post, email, or phone call is more important than family time. The likely only exception is when you’re a first responder on call.

10. Be a Parent, Not a Friend

Your children’s friends and acquaintances will—at some point—encourage your children to do wild, wacky, and sometimes unsafe things. You’ll do the opposite, of course, and advise, protect, and encourage your children to grow into responsible adults. Your child is not your friend. That means you’ll be saying “no” to a lot of crazy requests, ideas, and notions.

Get comfortable with that when it comes to technology. If you see your child asking her aunts and uncles to see their smartphones upon first seeing them, explain to them why this isn’t okay with you. Also: make sure this isn’t okay with you!

Do you have other rules or policies that you implement in your home? Have I missed any obvious ones? Share your tips, tricks, and thoughts in the responses so we can all discuss it together.

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

And remember: if you’d like me to write about a topic, drop me a line on our still-open discussion thread at this link.

As always… surf safe.

Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
If you’re looking to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
For a super cool way to NOT give your personal email address to everyone, click here.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.