Over the course of the 18 years I have spent working with media and technology in schools, many parents have come to me seeking advice about how to navigate the ever evolving media and technology landscape with their children. How much screen time is too much? At what age should a child get a smartphone? Should children be allowed to play Fortnite? These are what I call "guardrail" questions. As the parent of a 10-year-old, I struggle with these kinds of questions, too. As hard as the task may be, it is essential that we, as parents and educators, act as guardrails for our children. We must set limits and make choices that establish clear boundaries around media use that align with our family and school values, even when those choices aren't popular with kids.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology, there are few research-driven, hard and fast rules that absolutely make clear what we need to do to keep our kids safe and healthy The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledged this in 2016 when it revised its recommendations about children's media use. The newest policy statements offer fewer quantitative recommendations than those that were published in 2011, not more. If the AAP is not sure which guardrails to recommend after consulting an immense body of research, how can the rest of us know?
For me the answer lies in the idea that we need to act as guides for our children, not just guardrails. There may not be one-size-fits-all answers to many of the questions we have, but there is comfort in that for me, because our children, our families, and our schools are not one-size-fits-all either. As adults, we must see the bigger picture and stay focused on what matters most so that we can help guide our children to also understand what matters most.
Fortunately, the 2016 AAP recommendations are written to help parents do just that. For example, instead of providing specific recommended screen time limits for children over the age of six, the AAP policy urges parents assessing screen time to consider a number of important factors, such as the quality of the content and whether the screen time leaves time for creative play, physical activity, healthy sleep, and even boredom. The recommendations make clear that although in our role as guardrail we often need to restrict screen minutes, the question of screen time is more complex than simply counting the minutes. The AAP guidelines encourage parents not to think about Facetime with remote family members as screen time, for example, but rather as conversation time. Or, when families co-view TV series and, in the process, discuss important issues together, it counts for more than time on YouTube.
As children get older, the roles of guardrail and guide often come into tension with one another. We want children to be media and information literate and to develop a balanced and healthy relationship with technology. In order to develop the necessary skills, habits, and mindsets to achieve these goals, children must have some freedom and choice in relation to media and technology use, which includes the ability to sometimes make the wrong choice and learn from their mistakes. With older children, we often therefore need to move (but not remove) the guardrails in order to give children the opportunity to become self-directed digital citizens. Thorny questions such as whether it is safe to allow a child to play an online multiplayer game or whether it is the right time for a smartphone can be boiled down to the balance between guarding them from harm and guiding them toward making good decisions. This balance is the true challenge in raising digital citizens.