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Taming Tech: Tips for Finding a Balance for Your Kids

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We have an unprecedented level of access to information and data. … But is this a good thing? Here are ways to help your family find a balance in a digital world.

Editor’s Note: Michael Horne, PsyD, is the director of clinical services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.  He is the author of “The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World.” To read more about Horne, see the author’s bio below.

by Michael Horne, PsyD

Chances are pretty good you’re reading this on a phone. This isn’t a particularly shocking statement; smartphones can be useful things. I use mine on a daily basis, whether it’s to check email, get driving directions when I’m on the road for work, listening to a podcast, or reading a comic after the kids have gone to bed. But there are a lot of ways that phones, or more specifically the ways we use phones, can get us in trouble. Even more so where our kids are concerned.

Technology: Everything, All The Time

We have an unprecedented level of access to information and data. Thanks to smartphones and wifi, we can watch millions of hours of videos on any number of video-streaming services, we can listen to almost any song we can think of, and we can connect to countless people all over the world at the speed of light. But is this a good thing?

Sadly, it’s just as easy for us (or our kids) to see something we’d rather not see. The average age of first-time exposure to pornography is 11 years old, thanks in large part to having a portal to everything in our pockets.

The amount of time we spend online continues to increase. Children ages 5-16 spend an average of six hours or more of each day staring at screens.  Based on usage rates in 2017, the average person in the U.S. will spend five years and four months of their life on social media. That is not time spent sending emails, playing video games or watching YouTube. That is just social media. This is the equivalent to the time it would take to walk across the country 13 times.

Fireproof Your Kids

And in all this time spent on social media, to whom are our kids talking? Do we honestly know everybody they connect with online? Do they?

Social media has warped the idea of “friendship” so that “friend” can mean anything from someone you’ve known since kindergarten to an acquaintance of somebody your cousin met once. In other words, we are letting our kids talk to strangers in our own homes. 

So how can we help our kids navigate the digital landscape?  Here are some ideas.

  • Come up with ground rules for how technology is used in the family. The rules have to apply to parents as well as kids.
  • Keep internet-accessible devices in open areas of the house. There’s no need to have a tablet in the bedroom at 11 p.m. I’ve lost track of how many teenagers I’ve worked with who are struggling in school because they regularly stay up past 3 a.m. watching videos online.
  • Set a time for all devices to be off and charging in a central location, like the kitchen.
  • Monitor your kids’ activity online.

A Kid Online is a Like a Kid Learning to Drive

I know this final point can be controversial but it’s important not just to know what our kids are doing, but more importantly, what is happening to our kids online. This often leads to kids saying things like, “You don’t trust me!”  But a kid online is like a kid learning to drive.

One day my children will learn to drive, and I’ll be a nervous wreck when they’re out on the road. Why? Is it because I think my kids will be terrible drivers? No. I trust them. It’s everybody else on the road that I don’t trust.  The same is true online.

Leading Kids To Christ

Ultimately we want to develop strong, healthy and loving relationships with our children. This provides them a safe place to come and share their concerns, if they find themselves in a situation in which their peers are doing something troubling. This also gives them a good model for what a healthy relationship looks like.

There is an increase, clinically, in teens and young adults feeling more isolated and feeling a loss of meaning and purpose in their lives. They might look to technology as trying to connect them with others, but a technology-mediated relationship cannot fully satisfy.

Sure, technology can support relationships – like being able to video conference friends and loved ones living in a different part of the world. But technology cannot become the source of our relationships.

Every hour we spend online is an hour we are choosing not to do something else, be it go for a walk, pray the rosary or spend time with a loved one.  Christ calls us to be in community, having genuine encounters in our lives.  Technology, out of balance, can prevent those genuine encounters.

We can, and should expect more out of our relationships than the convenience of social media. We want to teach our children to desire a stronger relationship with Christ than they have with someone they’ve never met face-to-face but “likes” their latest tweet.

Michael Horne, PsyD, is the director of clinical services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.  He is the author of  “The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017). Horne has presented on parenting, technology and relationships across the United States, Canada, and the UK. He has appeared on EWTN Radio, Relevant Radio and SiriusXM, presenting on a variety of topics related to technology and families. Horne holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, where he specialized in child play therapy and completed a dissertation on violent video games and the influence they have on the player. He writes a blog on parenting at www.theduckeffect.com. Horne lives with his wife and their growing family in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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Regina Lordan, a digital editor at Peanut Butter & Grace, is a mother of three with master’s degrees in education and political science. She currently reviews books for Catholic News Service and is a former assistant international editor of Catholic News Service.

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