Parenting and Technology

Technology education is a little like sex education. It needs to start early, and sometimes the questions can take us by surprise!

Marje Monroe, cofounder of Children Online, was the featured speaker at a Parent Association-sponsored Parent Education evening in January. She also worked with the third through sixth grade on internet safety. To read more about her presentation, click here.

Children learn about technology as infants from watching their loved ones. Like the adults in their lives, they want to use smartphones, watch television and videos, and play electronic games. They become expert at figuring out how machines work, and using technology to interact with friends. Before long, they are media multi-taskers, with implications for their social relationships, attention spans, learning styles, school performance, and even sleep patterns.

Technology poses many challenges for parents, who may model one behavior while trying to enforce another. And technology is so ubiquitous — transforming not just the workplace but our leisure activities — that it may not occur to parents to discuss all the health, safety, emotional, and ethical issues associated with our digital lives.

It is important to start these discussions early. By the time a child is in fourth grade, he or she already has developed attitudes and habits related to technology and online behavior. A survey by Children Online of 2,500 children between fourth and 12th grades found that nearly 83 percent of the respondents had Internet access in their bedrooms; only 16 percent had some kind of parental control software.

There are so many questions, and no one right answer:

  • How much screen time is acceptable for young children? (One answer from the American Academy of Pediatrics: no television for children younger than 2 years old, and no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming for children older than 2. In a recent survey, the AAP found that 90 percent of parents said that their infants and toddlers watched one to two hours per day. By age 3, almost one third of the children had a television in their bedroom.)
  • When should a child start using a computer? ( The Kaiser Foundation found that 12 percent of children ages 2 to 4 use them every day, and 24 percent use them at least once a week. On average, children started using computers at age 3 1/2.)
  • When should a child get a cell phone? The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported last year that 75 percent of 12 to 17 years olds had cell phones, up from 18 percent in 2004. “The phone is now a huge part of parenting. It’s how you reach your kids,” said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist involved in the project.

And the questions go on. When should a child create an email account? Join an online community (like Club Penguin, for example)? Join Facebook?

In all these decisions, the ongoing conversations between parent and child about social values, ethics, limits, personal responsibility, and potential consequences are essential to helping the child learn to manage their digital lives.

Additional resources:

Kaiser Foundation: Media multi-tasking in the lives of 8-18 year olds

Kaiser Foundation: Media use and sleep problems

PBS Frontline series: Digital Nation

Common Sense Media: research and parenting advice

Common Sense Internet Safety Guide

The Pew Research Center: Teens and mobile phones

The Pew Research Center: Teens, kindness, and cruelty on social network sites

The American Academy of Pediatrics: The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families

The American Academy of Pediatrics: Babies and toddlers should learn from play, not screens