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Train Your Teens to Manage Technology Wisely

Our long-term goal as parents is to raise children who will practice self-control and manage technology well on their own.

When my daughter Lucy was only 4, she was mesmerized with my new phone. As her chubby little fingers tapped the screen with all the brightly colored apps.

I quickly realized I couldn’t mindlessly let her play with my phone just because it was sometimes convenient.

“This is a no touch when Mommy isn’t with you,” I told her. “It is Mommy’s phone.”

Kids love to use technology. We don’t have to bribe them to use a tablet or beg them to play video games. We have to do the opposite and constantly manage our kids’ runaway screen time. But eventually, we won’t be there to apply the brakes.

Our long-term goal as parents is to raise children and teens who will practice self-control and manage technology well on their own. Here are three ways to help your children develop these skills.

Ask, “Digital vegetable or candy?”

Not all screen time is created equal. Toddlers and teenagers need to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy screen time. To help them, explain that digital vegetables include such things as attending school online, Skyping Grandma, using a Bible app or watching videos on how to play an instrument.

Just like actual vegetables, digital vegetables make us feel good. They strengthen our minds and bodies and aren’t addictive. I’ve never had to tell my kids, “Stop eating so much broccoli!” Kids who consume a portion of digital vegetables will walk away nourished and satisfied.

That’s not the case with digital candy—the feel-good entertainment choices like TikTok, Netflix and video games. Once they get a taste of candy, kids want more and more. It’s exciting and amusing, designed to hook our children’s attention and never let go. It’s junk food for the mind and heart. A little might be OK, but hours and hours of digital candy will make our children sick.

Teaching kids the difference between digital vegetables and digital candy can help them become more aware of what they’re “eating” online. They can even use these categories to describe their screen time. My 16-year-old son, Ethan, loves to play chess online, which might be categorized as a vegetable rather than candy (though it’s probably more like a sweet potato with melted butter and sugar).

Help Your Teens Practice the “Technology Pivot”

Many of us spend so much time looking at our screens that we don’t look at each other. One of the healthiest habits we can teach our children is to pivot away from their devices whenever someone enters the room. This communicates, “You are more valuable to me than a piece of hardware.”

Performing the pivot is as easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Notice when someone approaches and get ready to pivot
  2. Lift your head from your device and physically turn from the screen toward the person.
  3. Smile and look the person in the eyes for the ultimate communication experience. Practice body language that says, I’m listening.

Lucy, who’s now 11, says, “Pivot! Pivot!” to remind me to turn toward her instead of my computer. I can say the same thing when I need to get her attention. It works both ways.

Stop Sleeping with a Digital Baby

What’s the quality of your sleep when you have a baby in the house? You walk around like a zombie, exhausted after sleepless nights. Today, phones are like digital babies that cry throughout the night with notifications, texts, tweets and temptations.

If we allow our children and teens to sleep with technology in their bedrooms, they will find it difficult to manage their digital habits well. Many foolish and damaging decisions are made in the middle of the night when self-control is at a low ebb.

Even “good” nighttime texts and posts can interrupt sleep. Research shows that sleep and mental health are strongly related. Sufficient sleep helps our children’s brains process and recall emotions, thoughts and memories. But a lack of sleep can lead to moodiness and emotional reactivity, as well as suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Establishing a family rule that devices aren’t allowed in bedrooms at night will help protect your children from harm. This is much easier to do when kids are young. With older kids who already sleep with their phones, you’ll need to set a new guideline and collect their phones before bedtime.

Training our kids and teens to better manage their technology now will equip them to handle it wisely as adults.

This article first appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Learn more and subscribe here.

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