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New Digital Devices? Get Off To The Right Start With a Family Media Plan

There is no doubt that gaming systems, phones, and tablets are at the top of many children’s wish lists this year. While there are reasons to wait before getting your child their own device, how do we make sure that when the time comes that we set them up for success?

Many parents greet new devices with equal parts excitement and dread. No matter your feelings, these moments present an incredible window of opportunity for you to step in as an influential media mentor in your child’s life. This is because:

  • Transitions are often the best times for our brains to start and practice new habits.
  • Kids tend to be more open to conversations and negotiation with us as part of gaining access to the new tools they have been yearning for.
  • Starting with more structure gives us “somewhere to go” as our kids earn trust and build skills. In other words, it is much easier to ease up on rules than it is to try to institute them later on.

All of this means that as our kids rip open the box and excitedly hold these powerful tools in their hands that the next best gift we can give them is a family media plan that includes our coaching, teaching and guidance. Where do we start?

Teenage girl using new phone according to family media plan

Before you throw away the receipt, ask yourself again, “Is this the right device for my child?” and, “Is this the right time for my child?”

Parents ask us all the time at what age kids should get gaming systems and phones. They are likely frustrated by our consistent answer: “It depends!” Every family and every child is different. Age is one part of the calculation but there are other important considerations as well. For example, check out these things to consider about when to get your child a phone from the Child Mind Institute.

If the only justification you can come up with for getting a new device is “Because everyone else has one” you might want to hold off, reflect more on your goals, and learn more from your child. There are all kinds of good reasons to get new devices and new games including learning, connecting, and creating but every device comes with its own set of risks and responsibilities. Remember that your decision doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, you might decide to have a family cell phone that your child accesses before allowing them a device of their own. Be sure you have thought through the pros and cons before diving in.

Use the “3 Cs” to make a family media plan with your child.

Researchers Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingston argue that making family plans around screen time that focus only on minutes and limits risks positioning parents as simply time-keepers and “enforcers” rather than media mentors. Instead, research suggests that managing and supporting your child’s media use around the “3 Cs” can shift that dynamic and shape better outcomes for kids:

  • Contexts. When, where, and how will your child use the device?
  • Content. What will they consume, watch, and engage with?
  • Connections. How will you make sure that device use doesn’t get in the way of relationships and connections – both offline and online?

Decide in advance which boundaries are going to be negotiable and which you will decide with your child. For example, you might determine that a tech curfew is non-negotiable but be willing to learn more about a new app or game together with your child before you decide if it is appropriate. Use Common Sense Media to find ratings and reviews and don’t be afraid to use apps and tools to help reflect on and manage screen time together. Make sure as you work through these concepts that you aren’t just focused on what might go wrong but also name the things that you hope go right by naming what everyone is most excited about. Record your family commitments and ideas in your family media plan. 

Balance control-based strategies with connection-based strategies.

When it comes to digital media, children benefit from a balance of control-based and connection-based strategies. Here is what a control-based strategy sounds like, “When this video is over, it is time to put your tablet away!” In contrast, here is what a connection-based strategy sounds like, “I noticed the kids in that video weren’t being very nice to each other. What do you think about that?”

Our use of parental controls is an important place to make sure we balance these two approaches as well. Monitoring can be used as simply a control-based strategy (install, catch, and punish), but when done well, can open up opportunities for conversation, reflection, and problem solving.

On balance, we might lean towards control-based strategies with young children and then prioritize connection-based strategies with older teens. For example, you can limit a younger child to a very controlled and limited “safe playground” online of only a few approved apps and games. As your child grows up and they start exploring digital spaces on their own and with friends, connection-based strategies like talking to them about what they are seeing and doing become increasingly essential. All of our kids, regardless of age, benefit from both clear boundaries and our engagement in their digital lives.

Reflect and make adjustments to your family media plan.

After you’ve had the device for a while, take the time to check in on how things are going. Rather than basing your family media plan on arbitrary rules or what other families are doing, reflect on how things are going in your own family. Ask yourself the following kinds of questions:

  • Is my child sleeping enough and getting enough down time?
  • Is my child moving their body and getting outside?
  • Is my child connecting socially with family and friends both online and offline?
  • Does my child have interests that they are engaged in outside of school?
  • How does my child seem while they engage in new digital activities as well as just after? Irritable? Inspired? Angry? Creative? Collaborative?
  • Is my child willing to reflect with me on media rules, screen time, and adjusting our family media plan?

The last bullet point is important because as kids get older they may be far less thrilled about the opportunity to sit down with you to talk about their tech use. (Another reason to get going on this while they are young!) You likely won’t hear “Thank you so much for this essential conversation! You are the best!” from your teen. Instead you might be greeted by grumbles, eye rolls, or “Do we HAVE to do this?” Don’t let this stop you. In the long run, engaging your child and co-creating expectations with them will have a longer and more powerful impact on their lives than any of the latest devices ever could.