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Digital Devices and the Challenges of 21st Century Parenting

By Elke Hautala

I’m a 21st Century Digital boy…I don’t know how to live but I’ve got a lot of toys.”

You may remember the pop punk band Bad Religion sang this back in 1994. As a recent addition to the parenting world myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I stand on digital device usage – what age is old enough? How much is too much? Can it be educational? How do I go about managing usage? Is there technology that can help me with that?

There are a lot of questions out there and you can often feel like a stranger in a strange land of constantly evolving digital technology, especially if your childhood was shaped by a complete lack of home computer or cell phone.

I grew up on a small farm in Southern Maryland in the early 1980s with no TV and hippie parents. Like many of my generation I’ve not only embraced technology but also made it my profession (through becoming a filmmaker). It’s a complicated and individualized issue so I asked around to get some helpful suggestions.

I asked Jessica Curry, mother of a 6 ½ year old son, what the biggest challenge of 21st Century parenting is: “Being cognizant of how we filter and what we filter.”

It’s a conscious decision to be engaged with each other.”

With a 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous devices — the type, amount and content of information young people are exposed to is definitely a concern of modern day parents.

Jessica says that she and her husband have very tight parental controls on any devices their young son does use and a “goal of 15 minutes a day (of screen time) at most.” She adds with a laugh, “We’re both engineers so it will be difficult for him to find a work around!”

It’s important because of family engagement.” Jessica says. Her family adheres to a no toys (or devices) at the table rule and she highlights that parents need to “lead by example.”

It’s a conscious decision to be engaged with each other and engaged in his learning process.” Jessica emphasizes.

Scott Olsen and Jennifer Cornell-Olsen, parents of a 17-year-old daughter, echo the importance of no devices during mealtime.

The Cornell-Olsen family.

The Cornell-Olsen family.

Modeling behavior of the parents is super important” Jennifer, a naturopath and teacher with a branch of Bastyr University, says. “If the child sees that the parents are constantly on their phones it’s going to be tough to enforce.”

Both Scott and Jennifer talk about the complications as your child grows – especially when it comes to needing a device for school or homework usage.

They emphasize continuing to think about limitations on screen time as your child gets older but being aware of how it evolves with them as their maturity and needs change.

Most parents agree that some kind of control is necessary nowadays. A combination of parental management and technological innovation to back it up seem to be the winning combination.

My 18-month-old son already enjoys picking up the remote control. As someone who works in media, I admit that I enjoy my screen time. Both my husband and I have been challenged to do the kind of leading by example that is important.

Since you don’t want to come back in the living room and find your 5 year old watching Game of Thrones or your 2 year old streaming YouTube videos of Eminem on your iPhone, there is help from iPhone apps to Circle to Comcast’s new xFi home WiFi system.

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There are quite a few apps in the iPhone world and newfound devices for parental control. Not only are they free but also several, such as OurPact and Nintendo Switch, come very highly rated.

OurPact by Eturi Corp. not only allows screen time management but also allows you to “locate family members using geolocation and teach time management through Internet and application blocking.” It definitely sounds like an app built by parents of teenagers.

Nintendo Switch is made specifically to use with their proprietary console. You can monitor the amount of time played, check what is being played and restrict based on age appropriateness.

Circle is a separate device that you buy so that you can control everything on your WiFi network. The creators’ goal is “to help families bring balance to their connected life.”

At $99 it is a little more of an investment but for a much more comprehensive device that comes with (whether you love it or hate it) Disney branded content already loaded on it. You can manage every device on your wireless network and create special profiles just for your little ones that can include things like time limits, bedtime, filters and rewards.

xfi-2Comcast has created a home WiFi network that you can personalize with parental controls and bedtime schedules.

xFi gives customers unprecedented visibility and control over one of the most important technologies in their home.” This is a way of truly integrating parental control with everything else you want to do with a home network.

It’s easy to set up and manage – you can even use the Cloud when you’re not at home. You can create specialized profiles for each member of the family and give them fun nicknames. The best news is that it comes at no extra charge for Xfinity customers.

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We may have a lot of “toys” these days but it’s nice to know that we have options to control them. When it comes down to it there’s always the off button and sitting down to read a book.

As Jessica told me “there are lessons to be learned from the past.” No matter where technology takes us, I hope that’s something that never goes out of style.

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