By Larry MagidWe're just a few weeks away from school letting out and -- for lucky families -- a chance to spend a bit of time together on vacation. Summer also means lots of free time for children and teens -- time that can be taken up in outdoor activities like sports or playing in the park, indoor activities like playing video games and going online, or hybrid activities such as hanging out with friends while, at the same time, using their mobile devices for texting, taking and sharing pictures, playing games and social networking. For many kids these days, the lines between being offline and being online are blurry.
Talk but don’t lecture
So for parents, this is a great time to sit down with your kid and have “that talk.” No, not about the birds and the bees but about the bits and the bytes or, more precisely, about the appropriate use of the technology that many kids will have almost unfettered access to while they’re away from school.
The most important thing is to make this a conversation, not a lecture, and to approach it with a bit of humility because — at least in terms of the apps and services they use — they probably know more than you do. Use that to your advantage by getting them to explain what they’re doing on their computer, tablet, phone, iPod touch, game console or whatever devices they’re using to get online.
Engage kids in helping
Have the kids use their tech skills to benefit the entire family. If you’re planning a family trip, have the kids go online to research the history, geography and all the cool things to do at your destination. They can search through mobile app stores to find apps focused on the place you’re going (some cost money, so have them help you figure out if they’re worth the price). Have them read through local newspapers for the area you’re visiting and report back on what’s happening there. If you’re driving to your destination, the kids can be in charge of navigation with your cell phone GPS and by consulting an online map before you go (though with the price of gas today, I recommend you check out the route too).
If your teen or child has a smartphone, ask them to show you all the apps they use and have them explain what they do with them and how they are protecting their privacy. Ask them to explain the privacy features of the app and then do a little research on your own to make sure there aren’t some they’ve missed. Do the same with any social networks they use. You can find links to articles about settings for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and popular game consoles at SafeKids.com/privacysettings.
Tablets and Toddlers
Very young children are now going online with tablets, iPod touches or their parents or older siblings’ smartphones, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are lots of great apps for small children from PBSKids and others but do be aware of how much time they’re spending with the device and what they’re doing.
Don’t assume that an app has to be labeled “educational” to have value. As Hanna Rosin asked in a recent Atlantic cover story, “Would you make your child read a textbook at bedtime? Do you watch only educational television? And why don’t children deserve high-quality fun?” She and experts she quotes make the case that young children can learn from a variety of apps and activities regardless of what “category” they fall under.
Still, and I know you’ve heard this before, never use technology as an electronic baby sitter. Kids of all ages need lots of interaction with family and friends and a wide variety of activities, including plenty of physical activity. Come to think of it, so do adults.
Be a good role model
And speaking of adults, consider how you’re role modeling. You can’t expect your child to moderate his or her use of phones, tablets and computers if they see you constantly using yours. Try to have dinner together as a family and try to ban the use of devices during the meal. Don’t leave your devices on in the bedroom. Consider creating a charging area in the main part of the house where devices can recharge their batteries while family members recharge theirs in bed. And “I use my phone as an alarm clock” isn’t a good excuse. You can buy a stand-alone alarm clock for under $10.
As I look back at my summer vacations as a kid, I remember hanging out with friends, spending a bit more time watching TV, playing games and sometimes being bored. The same can be true today. Kids can hang out with their friends in person and online (sometimes at the same time), they can play with apps on their devices and, instead of TV, many will watch YouTube.
And when it comes to boredom, that too isn’t such a bad thing. It’s a time to slow down, reflect and be left alone with your own thoughts. For that to happen, we need to “unplug” once in awhile — a lesson worth teaching our kids and heeding ourselves.