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Beyond "Lock Down" and "Hands Off:" Parenting for Digital Citizenship

My kids are obviously being encouraged to use technology in school yet I am concerned about all the other 'stuff' that comes along with it like too much time on Facebook and tons of distraction. I hate being a grouch because I actually like this stuff. What approach should I take with my kids as they get more and more tech in their lives?

Susan, California

Many parents share your love/hate relationship with technology. This ambivalence makes a lot of sense!  If you synthesize the mountain of research on technology's impact on kids it boils down to this: there is a lot of incredible opportunity and a lot of stuff our kids could do without.

So how do we respond?

The "Lock-Down" vs. the "Hands Off" Approach 

A lot of parents tend to adopt polarized approaches to digital technologies. I call these two approaches the “lock down” and the “hands off” approaches. Neither is ideal for helping young people develop healthy habits.

Parents who fear technology and its impact on their kids often adopt a “lock down” approach. They tend to micromanage digital activities and assume that all online and media-related activities are a waste of time. On the other hand, parents who adopt the “hands off” approach assume that they don’t have much control or influence over their children’s digital lives (good or bad) and do very little to try to influence their online behavior and media habits.

The Middle Way: Raising Digital Citizens

The good news is that you don't have to choose between being a digital grump or a technology champion. There is a middle way! 

I believe that digital technologies aren’t inherently good or bad forces in the lives of kids, but that they are powerful. Neither the “lock down” nor the “hands off” approach strike the balance that is needed to help kids harness this incredible power for good. Kids rely on parents to both nurture their digital skills and outline the boundaries of appropriate behavior. A balanced approach where parents encourages positive media habits, take interest in their children’s digital lives, and set firm limits and consequences around both time and content set kids up for success in the digital age.

Of course a balanced approach is going to look different for a five year old than for a fifteen year old! With young children, the “lock down” approach isn’t always a bad idea. It just doesn’t need to come with the bad attitude about technology. Making sure that we create a controlled, safe virtual “playground” for little kids and limit their media use during this critical stage of development is a good idea.

As kids get older, parents can help guide them through an expanding set of age-appropriate games, sites, and other digital tools. The conversations that parents have with their children, the questions they ask, and the limits and consequences they set and enforce are a huge protective factor for kids in the digital age. Teens whose parents have clear media rules and ongoing communication are much more likely to have healthier digital habits – even if they roll their eyes and slam the door in your face!

It's Not About the Tools, It's About Us and our Kids

At the end of the day, we know that technology is going to be key to kids’ 21st century success. We also know that age-old skills like deep focus, concentration, quiet reflection, and good communication are also essential. This means that kids need more than access to technology. They also need to learn the discipline, ethics, and problem solving that will enable them to use digital tools in ways that are useful and meaningful to them and to the world.

The thing is - our kids aren't going to develop these skills in a digital desert nor out at sea in a digital ocean without a rudder. They are looking to us to get beyond both the 'lockdown' and the 'hands-off' approaches. They are looking to us to help them become caring, resilient, and responsible humans. In the 21st century, we might call these humans thoughtful digital citizens. And our schools, communities, and conference rooms need more of them!

The middle way may be more of a balancing act, but I think it's worth it.






Erin Walsh


p.s. Want more tools to help you raise good digital citizens? Check out these posts on multitasking, face-to-face time, cyber-addiction, and 5 things to love about digital media.