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Finding Digital Balance

How to control kids' obsession with technology

What parent doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with technology? TV, video games, social networks, cell phones and all the rest have a legitimate role to play in healthy, happy lives. Yet too many of us have seen our kids get sucked into the black hole where technology extinguishes other interests. It’s possible to lead responsible, reward- ing lives with and without technology. Therefore, keeping digital perspective is especially important — and challenging — for parents whose role as technology gatekeepers transforms as kids grow up.

4 Steps to Digital Detox

1. Commit to daily quiet time. Establish your own device-free time, maybe the first 15 minutes of the day or the stretch between getting home and eating dinner. Instead, use it to engage in a mindful activity — meditating, looking out a window, journal-writing. Tell your kids what you are doing. Invite them to join you or to find their own quiet time.

2. Track how long family members spend on video games, TV, social networking, online homework and email. Discuss your findings at a family meeting and decide whether adjustments should be made. Be open to what your children say about your use of technology.

3. Brainstorm tech alternatives. People attached to their digital lives may feel anxiety — even hostility — if asked to unplug. Be prepared with engaging, age-appropriate alternatives such as puzzles, magic tricks, board games, crafts and books. Cultivate hands-on hobbies such as cook- ing or gardening.

4. Take a digital vacation. A growing number of resorts are making a virtue out of freedom from WiFi, TV and even phones. On the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, hotel guests actually get a guidebook that reminds them how to have fun without technology. Of course, you can get similar results for much less money by going camping (even in the backyard), renting a nearby cabin out of wireless range or booking a vacation at a working farm.

Digital balance, age by stage

6 & younger. With early learners, parents must exercise discipline — usually over themselves. How often have you bought a little peace by encouraging your child to watch TV, play video games or fool with a cell phone? It’s not that young children should never do these things; they just shouldn’t do them very often. Little kids need three-dimensional play and plenty of time with real people eager to talk to them.

6 to 12. Children in this age range benefit from supervised access to technologies that help them succeed in school, make friends and develop confidence. Set and enforce appropriate limits: Be sure everyone unplugs during meals and family events. Keep technology out of bedrooms and maintain reasonable bedtimes. Make sure your child engages in a daily physical activity, whether it’s team sports or walking the dog.

Teens. In adolescence, young people come to terms with who they are. Some really are exhilarated by marathon gaming sessions or social media multitasking. Others need long stretches of screen-free time to be in touch with their thoughts. Teens can’t know what works for them without some experimentation. Parents can help by encouraging kids to think about what matters to them and how technology supports or detracts from their goals.

All ages. Parents can make it clear that the use of technology should always be a choice, not a compulsion. In a life that has only so much time, everyone has to use it wisely. Technology is seductive, and sometimes the only way to get perspective is to step away and think about whether it is serving us — or vice versa. Teaching kids to pause every now and then to ask reflective questions about their digital lives is the best way to lay the groundwork for a constructive, enriching long-term relationship with technology.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing Growinguponline.com for 10 years.

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