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How to Help Your Children Be Smart (and Safe) Digital Users

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Photo by David Hume Kennerly

Today it seems as if everyone, including young children, are plugged in. Playing games, using educational apps, watching YouTube videos, thumbing through social media—screen time is a part of our culture. And while technology has become a critical tool in our lives, it has also been linked to emotional and health risks, including the tendency to sit instead of being physically active, sleeping problems, social isolation, and bullying.

As the country’s largest private early childhood education provider, we’re as concerned as you are about how much screen time children have and how they use that time. Children are developing the critical-thinking skills they need to make good lifestyle choices, including safe digital choices. We teach and care for nearly 185,000 children each day. Many of those children learn how to make better choices online in our Technology Track and STEM Learning Adventures programs that support children’s learning in coding, digital art, game design, and digital citizenship. We want children to become active creators, rather than passive consumers, of technology. We want them to use technology as a tool to learn, explore the world, and build community. And, most importantly, we want our children to be safe.

Here are five tips that can help children become safe digital learners and develop the 21st century skills that are essential to their future.

1. Set limits on children’s screen time.

Unstructured, real-life play boosts children’s creativity and helps them explore their world. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of two should avoid digital media altogether (except for the occasional video chat with family), while two- to five-year-olds should have no more than one hour per day. It’s not the end of the world if your preschooler or school-age child engages in some screen time. Just make sure to set limits, and encourage your child to spend time in free play with friends or siblings, reading by themselves or with you, going for walks, or playing outdoors. And the more interactive the time spent on devices, the better it is for your child.

2. Actively engage with your child’s online experiences.

You talk with your children about what they did at school and who their friends are. It’s just as important to talk about what they’re doing and who they’re talking with online. Sit with your children while they’re online, and participate in what they are watching, reading, and doing. Be more than a monitor; help to facilitate and participate in their learning. Let your children know they can always talk with you about anything, including what they see online. The more you interact with your children during screen time, the better. 

3. Use technology as a tool for creation.

The app that your child loves may claim to be “educational,” but what are they learning as they swipe their little fingers across the screen? Technology can give children the freedom to discover, create, and tinker, but only if the tools they are using actually encourage inquiry and critical-thinking skills. When we use technology in our programs, we make sure the children “drive” the technology, rather than the technology driving them. Be sure to check out reviews, like those on Common Sense Media, to make sure those favorite online apps and games are age-appropriate and put children in the driver’s seat.

4. Teach children how to be thoughtful about what they read, watch, and say online.

Digital footprints can last for a long time. Talk with your children about how their postings influence people’s opinions of them—good or bad. Model good online behavior for your children by teaching them to think critically about what they hear and read, and where it came from. No matter how old or young we are, we can all use a reminder to stop and think before reacting to something we saw or heard from a friend, whether we’re online or off.

5. Make tech-free zones part of your home and life.

Mealtime, family time, and bedtime are all good times to put the screens down and be fully present. It’s not enough to turn the volume down and keep the screen on in the background—turn off your electronics and encourage everyone in your family to engage with one another the old-fashioned way. You never know where the conversation (or play) might lead. Need help figuring out how to do this? Take a tip from Linda Nelson, one of KinderCare’s curriculum developers. Her family has a box they use as a “phone home.” All phones and portable electronics go “home” during meal times, family time, and at bedtime. It’s a good reminder to everyone (children and adults) about when to put down the screens and engage with each other.

Together, we can teach children how to be smart and safe while they’re online. Keeping an open atmosphere about online activity builds respectful, caring, and supportive relationships that help our children grow and thrive.

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