Tech-Smart KidsHow much exposure and freedom should you give your children with technology and social media?

When used for the right purposes, technology is a tool for good. It can connect us to the rest of the world. It can teach us about nature and show us the far ends of the earthplaces we will likely never see. It can contribute to our health and well-being through shared information, fitness tracking, support groups, and so many other ways. Raising tech-smart kids will help them participate in, benefit from, and contribute to that goodness in important ways.  

Editor’s note: In this article (and elsewhere), I place technology and social media in the same category. It is possible to have a child who is interested and adept with new technologies but who is not interested in social media, and vice versa. As the parent, you will obviously pick and choose what you allow and value in your family, and children will, likewise, gravitate toward what interests them.

1. Teach safety first.
First things first. Take precautions on behalf of your children and be strict with your expectations. Insist on transparency (shared passwords and surprise inspections). Talk about what happens online and what they should do if they encounter anything inappropriate, uncomfortable, or threatening. Set boundaries as to when they can use devices and be online and as to the kinds of sites they can visit and set up accounts, etc. Make sure they always check with you, use a shared email address, and provide the login information. (Some of these limits you can set yourself by restricting sites and setting hours on devices.)

2. Prioritize human connection.
Emphasize to your children that technology does not come before the relationships of family and friends. Also teach them that social media is not a place to say things you would not say to a person, face to face. Be an example of putting other people ahead of tech. Put down your devices and play with your kids. Emphasize that we use technology to improve our lives and relationships–not create problems.

3. Explain your guidelines.
Tell them why, in developmentally appropriate terms, you have created your rules. And be a safe place for them to come to you with questions, concerns, and information. Be willing to listen and make adjustments as technology changes and as children mature.

4. Expose them to new tech.
Let them use your phones, tablets, etc. as soon as they show an interest. Show them how to use technology correctly and how to treat it. Provide them with educational games and apps. Demonstrate how to use the internet for good by using it to find information, recipes, crafts, and activities. Explain how they can use it (wisely and ethically) as a homework tool to search for credible information and sources and the like. Emphasize that they should never plagiarize.

5. Use technology as a family.
Play simple games together or do something as elaborate as starting a family blog or vlog. Even if it’s private and accessible only to extended family, children can learn to write and post articles, film videos, edit photos, etc.

6. Teach them responsibility.
Walking to the car last winter, I slipped. During my less-than-graceful landing, I managed to slam my phone into the mud in such a way that some of it was jammed into the headphone jack, wreaking short-term havoc on my communications. Stuff happens. As adults, we drop things. We break things. Kids are developing and learning. Have patience. But acknowledge their efforts and good habits. Praise them when they remember to charge their devices, return them to their protective cases, put them back where they belong, etc. If they do lose or break something, don’t always rush to replace it. Establish a way they can earn the replacement.

On social media, let your children know you are proud of them when they are kind and when they report trouble to you.

7. Invest in them.
You don’t have to pay big bucks to send your kid to robotics or programming camp. Many children don’t want to spend the summer studying those subjects, but you can buy equipment and software that support your child’s interests. You can purchase or find apps and programs for gardening, crafting, creating music, etc. If you don’t have money to invest, spend some time looking for free apps, playing on the computer together, and talking about what’s happening on their social media sites, etc.

8. Encourage them to invest in themselves.
Let them save up to buy their own technology. They can save birthday money or do odd jobs around the house as they get older. You can establish a matching funds program for space, programming, or other camps and allow them to work of their half. Technology is not cheap, and you can help them learn to value it as well as prioritize their wants and needs.

9. Do other things.
Let kids be kids first. Read books. Pick dandelions. Ride skateboards. Go to dances. Listen to music. Childhood today often includes playing video games, but it can also mean going swimming, making cardboard box tunnels, and collecting rocks. Encourage balance.     

Not all kids will grow up to be professional programmers or engineers, but a basic fluency of technology skills are now as useful as reading music or speaking a second language. All these skills benefit other areas of their lives. For example, children can take photos or make videos that show off other skills. They can learn crafts or skills through online tutorials. They can discover new interests and ideas by exploring the internet.  

Some positives for parents are that technology can be used to teach, entertain, connect, and even protect. They can call you when they need help, and you can track them through their devices.

I would recommend getting your child a device, getting them on social media in an age-appropriate way, and even reserving a domain name or setting up a place that serves as a virtual scrapbook. You teach them about crossing the street before you release them in the wild. You talk with them about four-way stops before handing them the keys. Start guiding them into the vast virtual and technological world because it’s becoming ever more connected with what we call the “real” world.