When Tech Is a Problem Child

Photo

CreditWesley Bedrosian

In the Broadway classic “The Music Man,” set in 1912, the con artist Harold Hill shows up in River City, Iowa, and attempts to persuade the otherwise contented townspeople that their youth are slipping into degradation. He singles out a billiard parlor, “the devil’s playground,” as the root.

“You got trouble,” he sings. “With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

These days, you don’t need goosed-up threats of nicotine stains and rebuckled knickerbockers to rouse the anxieties of parents. All you need is to broach the one subject that everyone views as Trouble.

By now, all parents know that technology poses at least some threat to children. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that said while digital and social media can help early learning, they also come with a host of risks, including negative effects on sleep, attention and learning, along with higher incidence of obesity and depression. The group recommends that parents develop a Family Media Use Plan.

Fair enough, but what should be in such a plan? As the parent of adolescents, I want more than bromides. I want to know what other parents are actually doing that works.

For the last six weeks, I’ve circulated (on social media!) 20 questions covering topics like homework, passwords, bedtime and punishments. I received responses from more than 60 families, and though the survey was unscientific, the answers have already changed how we manage tech at my house.

FIRST PHONES The vast majority of parents who responded gave their children their first phones in sixth or seventh grade, with a few holding out until high school. But those devices aren’t always cutting edge. Parents opted for “dumb phones,” “flip phones” or “hand-me-down phones” from siblings or grown-ups. They also turn off features, including Wi-Fi, Siri, even internet access.

Other popular restrictions include: “Writing an expected behavior contract.” “No use of the internet on school days (except schoolwork).” “Screen time limited to 30 to 60 minutes per day during the week, unlimited on Saturday mornings.”

Another is a partial ban on group texting. “I was able to help my son feel better about not having this by allowing him to view group texts on the family iPad,” one parent said. “It helped him see how little value the group chatter has.”

Phones during friend visits are another issue: “Nothing more disappointing than seeing my children’s friends bring their devices to my home and have them focus on the devices to the exclusion of hanging out with my children.”

My own favorite way to limit tech use: “Poor reception — the phones don’t always work.”

Asked to give other parents advice on when to give their children a phone, the consensus answer was: Wait as long as possible. Once you provide it, it’s very difficult to take back.

HOMEWORK Should children be allowed to communicate with friends while doing homework? Two-thirds of the parents say yes; one-third say no.

Among the comments by the Yeses were, “Only if they are in common areas of the house” or “Only with the door open (so we can monitor).” Another added, “Depends if they are working on a project together, which is difficult to enforce.”

The Nos said that homework is done independently, and that if kids need help, they should find a parent, or the parents contact a teacher.

Wider use of computers for homework also drew mixed reactions. Some parents are quite strict, limiting all technology “outside of a computer for spelling or Google docs.” “Only homework-related sites and no social media.” “Only certain educational sites are allowed. Wikipedia is completely discouraged. I strongly believe that actual books should be read for research purposes as opposed to ‘Googling’ everything.”

Others are more lax: “You have to let them use the tools they will need in their lifetime. Otherwise, let’s give them coal and a slate slab, like Lincoln.”

BEDTIME Researchers at King’s College London have found “strong and consistent association” between using devices at bedtime and inadequate sleep, poor sleep and increased sleepiness during daytime. Parents have gotten the message.

An overwhelming majority ban phones from bedrooms at bedtime. “Tech needs a bedtime, too, in our house, 30 mins before lights out.” “No technology one hour before bedtime.” “At 9 p.m. she brings her phone downstairs, where it stays until 7 a.m.” “Devices are supposed to be parked outside the kids’ bedrooms before they turn in for the night.”

Some parents make exceptions on weekends or as kids get older. A few have no restrictions at all, though one otherwise tech-friendly mom said: “No earbuds! Our carbon monoxide detector went off one night and he did not wake up because he was sleeping with earbuds in.”

At least one dad goes to the opposite extreme, turning off the Wi-Fi in the house at an appointed time each night. “Same rules, better enforcement,” he said.

Also popular is to require phones to be charged outside the bedroom. “Everyone in our house puts phones on a charging station in our kitchen before going to bed.” “Devices are charged in the kitchen. (I cook a lot and I can keep an eye on them, especially when the children are punished and still try to sneak off with them.)” “At bedtime, devices go in the bathroom for charging.”

One mother has no specific place, only not in the child’s room: “My husband and I simply ask where the phones are charging during our ‘audits of responsibility.’ If the children try to work around the rule, they know the device will be placed in ‘jail.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA Many parents restrict first-time phone users to a single social media platform. “Only Snapchat; no Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.” “Only Instagram, and I check it occasionally.” “One platform at a time.”

Regardless of the sites, most parents insist on knowing passwords and logins. “My rules, until he was 18, were that I get all the passwords to all accounts. I did spot check from time to time.” “I have ALL usernames and passwords, and if they change, she has to update my list. If I try to log on and cannot, I get the phone until it pleases me to give it back.”

Do parents actually monitor their children’s online behavior? Some do. “I read texts frequently.” “We are ‘friends’ or ‘following’ all of his social media accounts, so we see every post.” “I have asked to read texts when daughter was hiding device as I came into the room.” “I do random audits. We talk about digital citizenship and positive words.”

But others prefer to give their children freedom. “When they each began texting, I read random texts. And I asked about the ones I read. (‘I see you and friend are chatting about the Jets,’ or ‘I see you and friend are chatting about another child in class.’) That way they know I can read any text at any time, even though I don’t.” “They’re almost all very boring.”

PUNISHMENTS What happens if children violate the family rules? Is it actually possible to separate a digital native from a device for an extended period of time? Behold, skeptical ones: Many parents say yes.

“Yes when younger.” “Yes, she responds to it.” “YES!! It’s the ultimate motivator!” “Yes. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then they find other things to do.” “I have. He gets very angry initially but eventually he calms down. Last spring I implemented a 3 week digital cleanse. He was angry each day for 3 days but also became more pleasant.”

Another common way to get children to adhere to restrictions is to have them pay for overages. “We pay the fee but have her pay overages.” “We also cut data off.” “She now babysits family friends to earn more and has to learn basic budgeting.”

FAMILY TIME Perhaps the biggest complaint about technology is that it eats into family time. So what techniques have parents used to take back that time?

First, tech-free dining. “No devices for all meals.” “No phones at the table, and that’s not just at our house. Siblings, nieces, nephews and my mom’s home have the same rule. No one gripes about it, they just do it.” “No devices at meals. No earbuds in the car.”

Second, consider positive alternatives. “Doing things that make phones a burden. Playing a fast-moving game, hiking, attending concerts or performances.” “We watch movies together, have a fire in the yard or swim when it’s warm and have game night, only board games allowed. They used to complain, but have found favorite games and look forward to it now.”

“Do something constructive together. Make sure everyone (even mommy and daddy) get their hands dirty. We often will cook together and make some of the worst meals ever, but it’s O.K. because we did it together.”

Finally, when all else fails, many rely on the old parental standbys: threats, bribes and public humiliation. Threats: “Randomly I scream, ‘Take that phone out of your hand!’ It limits their use for the next five minutes.”

Bribes: “Parent-child date night. (Parents alternate taking one child out for a treat; fourth week is parents night out.)”

Public humiliation: “If a device is picked up during family time, we get to open texts, and my husband and I do dramatic text reading.”

Now that’s a technique even the parents of River City might embrace. These days, trouble may start with the phone, but the solution still begins at home.

How to Manage Media in Families

Photo

CreditMary Ann Smith

Parents have a love-hate relationship with firsts. Some they like: the first smile, the first steps, the first sleeping through the night. Others they dread: the first flu, the first tantrum, the first broken bone. As children get older, the firsts become more nuanced, generating both joy in our children’s independence and fear of their slipping away: the first summer away, the first date, the first driver’s license.

But few firsts generate more ambivalence than the first cellphone.

On one hand, many parents welcome this milestone. Now they can keep track of their children when they’re out and notify the children if they’re running late. Also, parents gain leverage. One mother told me, “I’ve found the phone has given me newfound power as a parent, because I can take it away!”

On the other hand, children tend to disappear through the looking glass when they get their first phone. They become vulnerable to the dark side of the Internet, and once comfortable routines get upended. “We used to be a family before they got phones,” one father complained. “Now we’re never together.”

(This challenge has taken on new urgency in New York this month as children can now carry cellphones to city schools after Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted a ban that had been enforced by the Bloomberg administration.)

How should parents handle this transition? Some discuss freedom and responsibility, hand over the device, then respond as situations arise. But others try to do more, laying down a set of rules.

The Obamas, for example, said they did not give their daughters cellphones until they were 12, barred their use during weekdays, kept the girls off Facebook until 17 and gave them what the first lady deemed “days of lectures” on the dangers of talking to strangers. Janell Burley Hofmann, a mother in Massachusetts, wrote her 13-year-old son a letter when he got his first phone listing 18 edicts, including: “If it rings, answer it. It is a phone. Say hello, use your manners. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ Not ever.”

The Internet is bursting with dozens of multi-plank contracts for parents to execute with their children. As the father of tweens, I like this idea, but I’m also realistic enough to know that a three-page contract will be swiftly ignored and even it can’t keep up with the last parent-avoiding app. What I craved was a handful of overarching rules that could guide our interactions.

Yalda Uhls, a psychologist at Common Sense Media and the author of the forthcoming “Media Moms & Digital Dads,” said parents should set guidelines in advance: “I believe that when you first give your child something that gives them unlimited access to the Internet and their friends, it is important to make it clear that you own the device, you pay for it, and if there is any behavior that you feel is not true to your family values, you can take it away.”

Part of this deal is that you will respect their boundaries, she said, but you also have the right to join any social network they join, know their passwords and check their texts. This can create awkward situations, she said, like when her daughter mentioned on a friend’s Instagram page how funny it was when he shoplifted. “I was horrified,” Ms. Uhls said, “but I chose to focus on the impact on him. ‘This is a public forum,’ I said. ‘His parents will be seeing this.’ ” She removed the comment.

Though it seems as if children know everything about social media, Ms. Uhls said, actually they’re still learning. “They’re so focused on themselves and their friends,” she said, “they don’t understand that other people are watching.”

Step Away From Your Phone

Of the 10 contracts I examined, one item appeared most frequently: “Phones will be turned off and put away at certain times of the night.” Research backs this up. A study from the University of Basel found that teenagers who kept their smartphones on at night were more likely to watch videos, text and have poor sleep habits and higher depression. Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor at the University of Denver and the author of “The Parent App,” told me that setting physical limitations may be easier than enforcing time restrictions.

“When parents say, ‘You can use the phone only from this hour to this hour,’ it’s hard to manage,” she said. She recommends that all phones go in a box by the door when children enter the house, or all devices go in the center of the table during mealtimes, including at restaurants.

“Whatever rules you adopt,” she said, “make sure you put the chargers in a public place, so the phones have to be out of their possession at night.”

Read Every Text Twice

One role of parents is to explain that digital communication can easily be misconstrued. Ken Denmead, the publisher of GeekDad.com and the author of several books, said that he tells his teenage sons that text-based conversations have no emotional nuance unless you take the extra step to insert it. “You can use smileys and emoticons to add flavor to what you’re saying,” he said. “It’s also about word choice or adding #enthusiastic. The bottom line: Before you send a message, go back and read it without context. Consider if that exclamation point could be read as aggressive.”

The Grandmother Rule

Everyone agrees on the need to prevent children from sexting, bullying or posting something inappropriate. But how to convey that? One parent told me she requires her children to put potential posts on the refrigerator and get a majority vote from the family. Mr. Denmead tells his sons, “Always pretend you’re speaking in front of a crowd.”

Ms. Uhls recommended giving children a visual. “Think about your grandmother,” she said. “Think about the principal. Think about the most embarrassing adult in your life. Before you hit send, reflect on how that person would react.” My daughters independently suggested the same rule, and when I asked what the consequences should be for violating it, they said, “Actually show the post to Grandma!”

No Phones at Family Time

Everybody I spoke with had certain rules about family time. Ms. Uhls said: “When I was younger and took parenting classes, everybody said, ‘Just 10 minutes on the floor with the children.’ Now I say the same thing. ‘Just 10 minutes. No devices. That’s our time together.’ ”

In Mr. Denmead’s family, the first 20 minutes of every car ride are reserved for conversation. After that, devices can be plugged in. “I think we’re overly nostalgic for ‘spot the license plate,’ ” he said. “It’s just a substitute for abject boredom.”

Ms. Schofield Clark went so far as to add family time to the contract she wrote with her children. That item reads: “We will have weekly technology-free activities, like hiking, biking or walking the dogs. Occasionally, we will take technology-free retreats, like when fishing or camping.” The contract also includes weekly movie night, with the proviso, “When Mom watches horror or fantasy films, she’s not allowed to say, ‘Ewww,’ ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Gasp!’ ”

Do Unto Yourself

One surprising thing I heard about these agreements: They should include restrictions on the parents, who are the most egregious technology abusers of all. Ms. Schofield Clark’s daughter insisted on the clause, “When I have something to say, Mommy has to close the laptop and listen.”

Her son added a rule. Beginning when her children were young, Ms. Schofield Clark took their photo with Santa every Christmas. She forced them to do it when they were teenagers, then posted the photo on Facebook. Within seconds, her otherwise hibernating 14-year-old son came bolting from his bedroom. Their agreement now includes the plank, “If Mom wants to post a photo with a kid in it, she needs to ask.”

This story also holds perhaps the final lesson of managing media in families: No technology agreement can be written in stone. It needs to be revised with every new child, every new phase, every new device and every new app.

Girls’ Clothing: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy

Here’s an interesting New York Times article about the “sexualization” of girls through popular clothing, and strategies parents can use to help their daughters dress modestly.  Thank goodness for a school uniform!

Anastasia Vasilakis
By BRUCE FEILER
Published: May 10, 2013

It first happened to me this spring. My daughters, who had just turned 8, came bounding into the room to show off new outfits they were wearing to an extended-family gathering. My eyes bulged. The dresses drooped provocatively off the shoulder and offered other peekaboos of their bodies. Sure, as a parent, I figured I would one day face clothing battles with my children. Politicians aren’t the only ones who draw red lines.

But so soon?

As a father, I find these conversations particularly challenging. On the one hand, I’ve internalized all the messages that I should not criticize my daughters’ bodies, compliment them merely for their looks, or in any way stifle their emerging sexuality. On the other hand, I don’t want them to leave the house dressed as pole dancers.

For years, I had what I thought was a sly way of handling this issue. Whenever my daughters modeled a new piece of clothing, I would say: “I don’t care what you wear. I care who you are.” But recently they’ve begun throwing my line back at me: “But I thought you didn’t care what we wear!”

Time to get some new lines.

The issue of appropriate clothing for girls has been the subject of increasing academic and popular scrutiny, fed by skimpy panties printed with “wink wink” or skinny leggings that say “cute butt sweat pants.” In 2007, Walmart bowed to parental pressure and pulled pairs of pink girls’ underwear off its shelves because they were printed with the words “Who needs credit cards …” on the front and “When you’ve got Santa” on the back.

Sarah K. Murnen, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College, said parents today face greater challenges than those in the past because girls’ clothing has become more sexualized. “Some people say it’s due to an increased pornification of culture,” Professor Murnen said, “where the easy availability of pornography on the Internet has made its way into styles and popular culture.” She cited thong underwear, push-up bras and leather miniskirts for first to fifth graders as examples.

In a 2011 study, Professor Murnen evaluated 5,666 items of girls’ clothing on 15 popular Web sites to determine whether they were “childlike,” “sexualizing” or “adultlike.” She found that 29.4 percent of items were judged to have “sexualizing characteristics,” including more than half of dresses and two-thirds of swimsuits. In a separate study of girls’ magazines, she found that the percentage of provocative clothing had more than doubled since 1971.

Professor Murnen said that this trend was particularly alarming because her research indicates that when adults look at girls dressed in sexualized clothing, they take them less seriously. “Teachers are looking at these girls and assuming they aren’t intelligent,” she said.

Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and the author of “Your Daughter’s Bedroom,” said girls today are unprepared to withstand sophisticated efforts by corporations that prey on girls’ desire to be popular. “As parents, we’re so afraid to talk honestly with our daughters about their sexuality that we end up leaving them out in the cold,” she said.

The American Psychological Association grew so alarmed with the objectification of girls in popular culture that in 2005 it set up a task forceSharon Lamb, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a member of the task force, said her hope was that their two reports “would bring attention to marketers and media to be more reflective about the kinds of girls they were presenting.”

Unfortunately, she said, the reports added pressure on parents to be more vigilant. “I don’t think it’s parents’ fault that they are ‘allowing their kids to walk around like this,’ ” she said. “There’s so much being done through peer culture that it’s a real struggle for parents not to be meanies and come across as antisexuality.”

So what is a worried parent to say? I suggested five possible retorts from girls and asked for guidance.

“EVERYBODY DOES IT.” “Ooh, that’s a rough one,” Ms. McFadden said, “because it’s the precursor to ‘Well, Johnny is freebasing’ or ‘So-and-so gets to stay out until 4 in the morning.’ You have to say, ‘Well, in our family we do things differently.’ ” The critical step, she said, is for parents to make sure they are on the same page before approaching their children. “You’re going to have to compromise on some pieces of clothing,” she said. “I had to give in on push-up bras with my daughter. But don’t let these items take over her wardrobe.”

“IT’S THE ONLY THING THEY SELL.” Ms. Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood,” said children who make that observation have a point. “Still, you have to state your values,” she said. “You have to say: ‘I don’t want to see you and your friends buying into these marketers’ schemes to sell teenage stuff to younger and younger kids. It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The marketers are the body snatchers, and I’m going to fight them.’ ”

“YOU’RE SUCH A SQUARE.”Professor Murnen agreed that parents need to embrace their old-fashioned standards. “I’m not a conservative person,” she said. “But when it came to my daughter, I told her I hope she developed a wonderful body image and a healthy sexuality but that I didn’t think that’s what sexy clothes were doing.” Professor Murnen said she even adjusted her own fashion choices. “I personally like attractive clothing,” she said, “but I’m careful not to wear clothing with sexualizing characteristics, because I do feel like I need to be a role model for my students.”

“MOM WEARS THESE THINGS, WHY NOT ME?”Ms. McFadden said it’s fair to point out to girls that as they get older, they will have more freedom to make their own decisions. “Our generation of parents are such sissies when it comes to setting boundaries,” she said. “Parents concede to their children’s whims to make their children happy, but those children don’t grow up to be happy, because they have no internal compass. These limits are what make healthy, happy adults possible.”

“FINE, BUT I’M JUST GOING TO CHANGE WHEN I GET TO SCHOOL.” Ms. Lamb said her response to girls who threaten to peel off layers once they leave the house would be to redirect the conversation. “I would say, ‘I’m not interested in controlling what you wear,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’m interested in getting you thinking about what it means to be an attractive person.’ ” She said she often tells her teenage students that the species would die out if boys only wanted to have sex with girls who looked like Victoria’s Secret models. “We’re built to be attracted to people with different looks, with different personalities, with different talents, senses of humor and lots of wonderful things,” she said.

As for us, the night my daughters first flashed their approaching tweendom, my wife quickly heeded the message. Shawls were procured, and those once-revealing dresses soon became more age appropriate. With a little hunting, my wife and daughters located some Web site that sold attractive clothes with more modest, yet trendy-enough slogans: “I Love Music” and “Bee-You-Tiful” with a bumblebee.

Still, we had been warned. The big battles are yet to come. Ms. McFadden said we should stay strong. “You have to remember,” she said, “you’re raising a person who’s going to live a whole life. Just because one episode doesn’t go well doesn’t mean an accumulation of similar messages won’t somehow trickle down. You just have to be brave, let them have the freedom they deserve, but still set guidelines that represent your family’s values.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 12, 2013, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy.