In a world of fake news, racy content, online bullying, and rising social isolation, parents are understandably stressed about what screens are doing to their kids. Many respond by placing strict limits on screen time. Research suggests you might want to think twice before taking this approach, however.
One recent study found that kids whose parents limited screen time actually do worse in college. The reason why isn't 100 percent clear from the research, but as one study co-author explained to Inc.com, it's likely because kids whose parents babysit their tech usage at home go off the rails when they don't have such guidance.
So, if screen time limits are likely to backfire, what works better? A recent Wired article offered simple but powerful advice: "Encouraging your children to think critically about the media they're consuming is much more important than playing screen-time babysitter."
It's better to teach your kids to regulate their own tech use and handle the craziness they're likely to encounter online than to try to do it for them. But as any parent can tell you, kids can be willful (or, depending on their age, secretive) about their screens, so how do you teach digital literacy? Wired leans on a ton of research to provide detailed advice, but here are a few basic ideas:
1. Start young.
Small kids struggle to understand the difference between marketing and truth, but that doesn't mean parents shouldn't start helping them make this distinction from the time they're in preschool. "Play the 'What are they trying to sell?' game with kids this age," suggests the article. "During a commercial break, see who in the family can be the first to guess what the ad is trying to sell."
2. Take advantage of teachable moments.
A stranger messaging your tween online can be terrifying. It can also be a great moment to start a discussion about privacy and who can see our private data. And if such a situation doesn't arise, consider creating one. "The next time you snap a photo together at the park or a restaurant, try asking your child if it's all right that you post it to social media. Use the opportunity to talk about who can see that photo and show them your privacy settings,"
3. Follow your teens' social-media accounts.
4. Fight fake news with "lateral reading."
Studies show kids (and adults) are pretty abysmal at separating facts from fakes online. Help your teen learn this tricky but essential skill by teaching them lateral reading. "If you find a piece of information, you try to see if you can corroborate it with another source," explains Wired. "Ideally, parents should encourage kids to verify information through trusted news outlets."
5. Model digital literacy.
You can't pass on what you don't have yourself, so make sure you follow the advice you're dishing out. Stay informed about what's going on online and model critical thinking, even if that means giving up control and fielding more questions. "The authoritarian 'Because I said so' refrain of old has been linked to lower academic performance and poor emotional regulation," notes Wired.
Following this advice is, of course, not easy. It's the Wild West out there on the internet. But the truth is our tech-enabled lives are unlikely to grow any less complex, so equipping our children to handle ambiguity, disinformation, and even outright manipulation is our only option. Even if that's way more exhausting than a straightforward limit on screen time.