Tech Time for Kids: Setting Limits


We all know that we live in a tech savvy world.  Toddlers can navigate tablets and smart phones with alarming ease.  Sometimes that’s a really good thing, like when you have to take a very long flight and there’s a delay…on both ends.


If we choose to see the positive, and there are many, kids are learning some valuable tools with early exposure to technology, we can keep track of them when they are off with friends, and searching for a payphone in the case of an emergency is a thing of the past.


For the most part, I’m a fan of moderate use of technology for kids.  Moderate.  That’s the keyword.


The downside, of course, is that kids are becoming dependent on games, instant communication, and feedback.


Remember when you actually had to dial a phone number (fine motor skills), wait for the phone to ring 19 times (patience) before your best friend’s mom answered, had a five minute conversation with your best friend’s mom first because that was the polite thing to do (social skills), and then spoke to your friend?  Ah, the good old days.  Those days are gone.


Today kids text each other to make plans, they text each other during said plans, and they text each other in the dark when their parents think they are fast asleep.  They create secret email accounts to create Facebook accounts.  They create Instagram accounts (sometimes with parent permission) and secret Instagram accounts with those secret email accounts (you know, just in case they’re being watched).


And…they are addicted.


They are using Facebook and Instagram at all hours of the night.  They are posting pictures and status updates and checking every twenty minutes to see how many likes and comments they have received.


Instead of laughing and socializing and maybe even (dare I say it?) playing…they are wrapped up in technology and social media.  Their self-esteem is quickly becoming dependent upon how their “friends” respond to their pictures and updates.  They need to see it, so much so that they might very well stay up much later than their parents think just to check the results of the day.


It’s a dangerous game, this boundary-less use of technology for tweens, teens, and, in some cases, even school age kids.  It affects their social skills.  It affects their health (eye strain, anyone?).  And it affects their emotional well-being.


Below are a few tips for creating safe and healthy technology use in your home.


Set Limits:  Would you give your 16 year old the keys to your car and simply wish him well as he drove away without even asking where he was going or setting a curfew?  Probably not.  So why hand over a smartphone or tablet without setting any limits?  For preschoolers and young children set a timer (10 minutes in my house) and give warnings.  Some kids don’t transition well.  I usually say, “Finish what you’re doing” when the timer beeps.  Make sure they can see the timer.  For older kids and tweens have a specific window of time during the day when technology use is available.  Taking the guesswork out of it means fewer battles.  For teens – it’s not theirs to keep.  It’s on loan from you.  Make sure they hand it in at night and follow the rules in their school handbook if they take it to school. 


Never at the Table:  Not you.  Not them.  Meals are for talking and eating and being a family.  Put all technology on a counter out of eyesight and just enjoy mealtime together.


Model Healthy Habits:  I see more jokes on Facebook about toddlers and preschoolers referencing Facebook and Twitter.  Little kids don’t need to know about Facebook and Twitter.  And they certainly shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder!  Take a break.  Step back and check your own habits, and then move forward in moderation.  I’ve had to do that at times.  What I always find is that I don’t miss it.  Set limits for you.


Be Tech Savvy:  You have to stay one step ahead of your kids.  That’s your job.  Get your own accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  Stay ahead of the learning curve.  You can’t bury your head in the sand and let your kids wander off into this brave new world without you.  If you hand over the iPod, it’s up to you to know what you’re kids are doing with it.


Establish a Contract:  Be honest.  Let them know that you will be checking their usage, what they’re doing on the computer, iPod, iPad, etc, and that, ultimately, you are in charge of tech usage in your house.  Keep the lines of communication open, but be willing to set up a contract with your child.  You can’t protect your child from every little thing, including cyber bullying, but you can be aware of what’s happening when your child logs on to her various accounts.


Check-in Basket:  Keep a basket in your kitchen with a sign indicating that all friends coming by to hang out should leave their technology in there.  Some people like to argue that texting gives kids a new, less threatening, way to socialize.  But when a group of kids are sitting around a room texting other people, they are missing a huge opportunity to socialize in real time!  So what if it makes you the most unpopular mom on the block?  Tip:  There is no award for most popular mom anyway, and votes swing continuously.  Make them some brownies; they will love you again in an instant.


Central Charging Station:  Most kids won’t just turn in their electronic devices at night; you need to set the limit.  Choose a time (at least one hour before bedtime – 8pm is good) and have your kids turn in their technology.  The central charging station should be in the parents’ room to avoid temptation.  Prolonged screen time at night can cause eyestrain, sleep disturbance, and anxiety.  Establish the limit and stick to it.


Above all, remind your kids of the simple pleasures of life.  Too often we get wrapped up in what’s happening everywhere else and, in doing so, we miss out on the beauty right in front of us.  Practice enjoying the here and now.  Your kids will thank you for it one day.

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)