January 21, 2015

Kids & Media: Forming Healthy Habits in the Home

My experience with Moms With Apps helped me learn first hand about kids and media. Personal trial and error with apps made me able to think carefully about media and how it's used in my own home. Here are some key questions I'm using to keep media in a healthy place.

"How Long Do You Think That Will Take?"

When asked by my kids, ages 9 and 11, if they can use a website or a mobile device, I answer them with a question:

“What are you using it for, and how long do you think that will take?”

They think for a minute, and then respond with the purpose of their online inquiry, and an estimate of how long they’d like to spend online. Most tasks are accomplished in about 20 minutes, unless they need a computer for writing up a school paper or report.

This simple question, “How long do you think that will take?”, helps orient our family towards a specific goal, and deters us from getting caught up in prolonged distractions and habits.

In the event someone just wants to zone out, we still ask the same thing: “How long do you need to zone out?” Then, when the time period is up, we check in and the device goes off.

"Is Your Phone In The Drawer?"

In our home I try to keep everything in its place. This has become an obsession, but a good one for keeping media in balance. 

For my 6th grader, the place she stores her phone is in a drawer in the living room. This is where the phone lives, unless it comes out for a specific purpose. By making a habit of having a place for the phone, I know where it is supposed to be before bedtime each night, and can ask: "Is your phone in the drawer?"

Establishing this routine early has kept media out of the bedroom at night, ensuring a peaceful night sleep that favors books over media. There have been no battles, because it's a house rule that was accepted by all members of the family before the personal device was permitted.

"Are You Doing the Non-Computer Portion of Your Homework First?"

With a 4th and 6th grader in our local public school, I'm finding technology is becoming more prevalent in all aspects of academic work. The kids are receiving lessons and writing papers using Chromebooks, Google Drive, Edmodo, Khan Academy and more. So when the kids come home to get started on homework, the last thing I want is for the homework (which is already a large load) to be prolonged because of random distractions on the computer.

With a hearty after-school snack and a chance to catch their breath, I always ask before the dive into homework how long they think their homework will take. With this estimate in mind, I then encourage them to start with the paper-based work if possible. That way, they can make concrete progress before going into digital territory.

So far, so good. Having a homework plan helps eliminate "scope creep", increases focus, and keeps all family members on the same page about what to expect in regard to homework completion.

"Have you considered who else might read your message?"

When she got her iPhone just upon entering 6th grade, we did not install any parental controls. I feel she has a right to privacy, just like I have a right to mine. I also consider her old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and able to use the phone in a respectful and responsible fashion. I want her to utilize the tools of common sense by being able to navigate a real world, and not a contrived world. If her common sense fails to prevail, then we need to re-evaluate her privilege to have access to a phone, learn some hard lessons, and try again later.

But every family is different, and some parents may monitor their child's messages for various reasons. In this case, I try to remind her that anything she sends, no matter how much she trusts her friends, could be read by others. It could be forwarded, re-posted, or skimmed by random parental units.

I don't believe there is such a thing as dependable "online privacy". Once data is logged on a device, it's digitized and recorded, and can end up anywhere. This reminder might help our kids think before they post - which is a helpful strategy in any context.

"What's on TV Tonight?"

Watching a show as a family can provide some enjoyable downtime after a long day. Lately, we've tuned in to PBS NOVA, and American Idol. My older daughter likes to sing, so we find all of the contestants and their backstories on the Idol to be entertaining and captivating. NOVA, on the other hand, has accompanied some of their schoolwork related to ancient civilizations. Recently we learned about the Roman Colosseum and the stone city of Petra.

What I like about living room entertainment is that it is mutually shared. We are all on the same page as a family, logging comments and discussion points collectively.

"That's a cool video you made, can I see it?"

Have you noticed how kids are becoming talented movie producers? With iMovie, kids are adept at transforming home movie footage into exciting movie trailers that include titles, text, and sound effects. On Easter Sunday, our neighbors came over to decorate Easter eggs. The idea came up for the eggs to be characters in a movie. The children planned out the plot and main characters, and then grabbed the iPad to shoot the footage. Kids took turns using the software, setting up the shots, and fine-tuning the storyline. The outcome was Eggtastic! (https://youtu.be/HC9GfW12tSA). Parents were amazed. After 45 minutes of creative chaos, and a final trailer in place, we then turned off the iPad and shooed them outside to play for the rest of the afternoon. Using the iPad as a tool for play was a fun extension to the afternoon that encouraged teamwork and discussion among friends.

"Are you OK with me posting this?"

I just had an experience that changed how I (the parent) view the consequences of posting stuff (blogs, social media, photos) online. As the kids and their friends grow older and join the online world, they can look me up! Social networks are merging people of all ages together, and the "kids" are no longer in a separate bucket. I feel it's more necessary now more than ever to check in with my kids about how they feel regarding my latest blog post, especially if it involves anything related to them or the family. It may change my tone, my approach, and my preparation - which isn't a bad thing. From now on, the question "Are you OK with me posting this?" will give them the courtesy of achieving some online privacy where necessary. 

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