Setting Limits and Nurturing "Digital Discipline"

Dr. Dave,

Getting through to my step daughter is frustrating for my husband and me. She is 12 years old and addicted to social networking sites and her cell phone already and seems to always have an attitude about anything and everything. How can we work through this?

Catherine, Tacoma, WA

Catherine, There has been a dramatic increase in parental and teacher concern about technology "overuse" as more and more children and teens have their own smart phones and more of their social life is spent on line either texting or on social networking sites. While it is clear that there is enormous benefit to growing up digital, worries about "chronic distraction," multi-tasking, decline of real-world social skills, and "cyber-addiction" are growing. Moreover the research is beginning to show that some of these worries are justified.  

I have become a proponent of what I call "Digital Discipline," which I think it is just as important as digital literacy. By "Digital Discipline" I mean developing the skills, behaviors, and practices that enable kids to take advantage of the benefits while avoiding some of the costs. Specifically,

  • Kids should spend a reasonable amount of online time and not let it crowd out other important activities.
  • Kids should cut down on the multi-tasking since we know it contributes to “partial attention” and “chronic distraction.”
  • They are able to put away and ignore the technology when they should be doing something more important, like paying attention in class or talking with family and friends during meals.
  • Kids observe a technology curfew so they get the sleep they need.

Here are some tips for parents and teachers to teach kids “digital discipline.”

  • Parents and teachers should set and enforce clear limits and consequences around technology use.  Of course this is easier said than done.
  • State your expectations around technology use as to when, where, and how much. Make the guidelines clear as well as the consequence for non-compliance.
  • Be specific. For example, “We agreed that you would stop texting by 10 pm on school nights. If you choose to text after 10:00 PM, you will lose your cell phone privileges for two days.”
  • Choose a consequence you can enforce and live with!
  • Make sure you are clear with your child that she is choosing the consequence with her behavior. “Since you chose to text after 10 pm, you are choosing to give up your cell phone for two days.”
  • Consistency is critical.  Your child or teen needs to experience the negative effects of a poor decision. If you waffle she will not learn this important lesson.