Rules are made to be broken. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening when it comes to rules about technology use. You’re probably not surprised by that statement, but when you realize that I’m talking about you and me and not our kids, the sentence takes on a whole new sass that neither one of us may have been expecting.
Two years ago, a team of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Michigan published a groundbreaking paper, Not at the Dinner Table: Parents’ and Children’s Perspectives on Family Technology Rules. A first of its kind, this paper unveiled, among other things, what technology rules kids would like to have for their parents.
Presented in March of 2016 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on Computer–Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in San Francisco, this study of 279 families with children from ages 10–17 has provided new insights into family rules about technology. Important new doors have been opened for fresh discussions and decisions, and families would do well to hear both what the research and what the kids are saying.
First, the research codifies what we already know in our bones about tech use rules for our kids: saying “don’t do that” doesn’t always work. It especially doesn’t work with “context” rules, as opposed to “use” rules. The research indicates that kids find it nigh impossible to follow a contextually–based rule like “Don’t use technology from 5–7 on a school night” or “Don’t use your phone while the family is watching a movie together.” On the other hand, use–based rules like “Snapchat isn’t an app that you’re allowed to use” or “Mature and adults–only video games are off limits in our family” are more effective at garnering compliance.
Armed with this empirical research, families can better help their children and themselves craft healthy boundaries around technology. Rather than create rules that are bound to be broken, rules that make common sense and that are easier to absorb and apply seem to be wise decisions for parents and kids alike. And that brings us to this revolutionary evidence.
Second, and most fascinating in this compelling research article, is what kids think about the rules that parents should follow for their technology use.
Jennifer Langston of the University of Washington News summarized the expectations of children for their parents, grouping them into seven categories:
- Be present—Children felt there should be no technology at all in certain situations, such as when a child is trying to talk to a parent.
- Child autonomy—Parents should allow children to make their own decisions about technology use without interference.
- Moderate use—Parents should use technology in moderation and in balance with other activities.
- Supervise children—Parents should establish and enforce technology–related rules for children’s own protection.
- Not while driving—Parents should not text while driving or sitting at a traffic light.
- No hypocrisy—Parents should practice what they preach, such as staying off the internet at mealtimes.
- No oversharing—Parents shouldn’t share information online about their children without explicit permission.
There’s an ancient sacred text that reminds adults that wisdom is often on the lips of children. And this research certainly supports that. The kids in this study had a challenging request that signals a gauntlet has been thrown down for parents in the modern world: “be present.”
That’s right; the number one concern of children was that they wanted their parents to “be present.” It confirms that aching sense of awareness that we all have—our angst–ridden teens may seem like they want distance from us, but in many ways, they really want a connection that is often muddied by misused technology.
A teacher of mine used to say, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” As we navigate the increasingly choppy waters of tech use in our families, may we use these new insights in wise ways. May we avoid the treacherous dangers that lurk beneath the depths by designing good rules—rules that can be followed by children and parents alike. And may we do that most important thing of all: being present with one another, refusing that inhuman and inhumane experience of being unseen by those we see and love the most.
Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the executive director at STARRY in Round Rock.