Even in a world where "the latest thing" is ever-changing, what is not ever-changing are the parts of childhood that help children develop the skills they need to be well balanced adults. To choose an old fashioned approach to make a point, if Nature wanted kids to be "wired" they would be born wearing an over-the-ear, Blue Tooth, headset (a bad example, perhaps, since Blue Tooth requires no wires). Technology or no technology, children need a certain amount of time to interact with family and friends in more conventional ways. They also need some time to engage in interests that are not associated with electronics.
Debates and studies about how much it too much or possible negative consequences aside, common sense should tell parents that when kids are tuned out to their immediate surroundings, and instead tuned in to something else, there is obvious some "break" in the natural order of childhood experiences. Common sense should also tell parents that the younger the child, the more "unplugged" time he needs.
The good news is that it isn't difficult to manage a younger child's time spent with electronics. The even better news is that nurturing a child's other interests, as well as face-to-face relating, can help develop patterns of behavior that may naturally reduce (at least some of) the time spent with electronics in later years.
Keeping the following tips in mind can help parents keep some degree of control over the time their child spends "plugged in":
1. Take Advantage of the Control You Have Over Preschoolers' Activities
Limit preschoolers' exposure to activities involving electronics, and don't use the PC or other electronics-related activities as babysitter. It's one thing for Mom or Dad to sit with the child and let him learn to use the PC. It's another to leave him sitting at it alone, or to allow him to head for his favorite program whenever the mood strikes. Allowing a preschooler to play a cell phone once in a while can seem like a special treat. Allowing him to pick up the cell phone and play games on it whenever he wishes sends a different message.
The interests parents encourage in their preschoolers are often interests they bring with them into their school years. Whether it's love of reading, fascination with science, or the fun of taking some kind of lessons with other children; parents have the chance to build "a lot of foundation" for the years that will follow the preschool years.
2. Don't Be the One Who Encourages More Electronics Than is Wise
Don't fall into the trap of believing that the latest electronic toys are "the most educational" for your preschooler. Overlooking classic childhood activities and toys is overlooking a child's developmental needs. Overlooking a preschooler's needs for one-on-one interaction with parents and others, as well as their need to learn to socialize with other children their own age, is overlooking some very important aspects of development. Parents have complete control over the activities they offer preschool children. This is a time when they should take advantage of their complete control.
3. Take Advantage of the Built-In Structure of the School Day
Just as parents can take advantage of the complete control the preschool years offer, they can do the same with the built-in structure of the school years between grades 1 through 9. Establish a few rules about when electronics will be used.
It isn't difficult to set up a rule that there will be no electronics in the morning, before school. Establishing that the afternoon hours following school are for other activities is usually easy. Between children's natural wish to go outside and play or participate in after-school activities, and their need to do homework, discouraging computer use during these hours can be relatively effortless. Allowing school-aged kids to use the PC or play electronic games on a rainy afternoon isn't likely to dissolve into a habit when parents make it clear it will not.
A "no-electronics" during dinner is usually a rule kids can easily accept/understand, which leads to the hours between dinner and bedtime. In most families, these are the hours where homework that hasn't been done must be finished, some television-watching may take place, and/or a child may head for the PC or video games.
Assuming the homework has been done, parents may find that a half hour or hour of family television (even if only a few evenings a week) offers a little more "together" time. Of course, if parents have to run an errand, or if kids have an early evening activity, this further eliminates the time available for electronics.
Today, kids younger than high-school age often have cell phones. One way to keep their use to a minimum is to establish that calls are for emergencies or quick transportation arrangements, and limiting the amount of available talk time.
4. Talk to Children About the Importance, and Joys, of Well Balanced Activities and Even Possible, Negative, Consequences of Too Much Being "Plugged In"
Most kids don't need lectures on the importance of having friends, or the fun of having a special collection of athletic activity. Still, having parents show they value these things (by talking about how important such things are, how proud parents are that their child is so "well balanced", etc.) can help reinforce, for the child, that the non-wired aspects of life are, in fact, very important.
5. But What About High-School Aged Kids?
Let's face it - trying to keep kids of this age from being too electronics-inclined" can be a losing battle. Kids who were encouraged to be well balanced in earlier childhood may be a little less likely to have too unhealthy an attachment to video games; but "wired" is the way of the world these days - for everyone. The PC, video games, iPods, and cell phones are all just a way of life these days. Kids who have reached high-school before seeming too "electronics-inclined" could be considered their own, or their parents' accomplishment. The picture changes for kids this age, though, because some of that electronics social interaction for kids this age is not necessarily a negative thing.
While parents and family are always important in even an older kid's life, the teen years are the years when the focus is on friends, school, and future plans. The ten-year-old, who "should be outside, playing Hide 'n Seek" but who is, instead, inside playing video games may be trading a more valuable activity for one that offers little (other than, perhaps, a hand/eye-coordination exercise). The teen who is chatting with friends online is, in a lot of ways, actually engaging in the kind of socializing and relating that people that age need to do. The point is that, at this age, being "plugged in" is not the negative thing it can be for younger kids. Some may say, too, that it not as undesirable as it is can be for people past their teens. In other words, for kids this age, parents may to raise the bar with regard to how much is too much. Still, regardless of anyone's age, it's never good for people to allow themselves to be completely removed from family.
Parents of kids this age may find that changing their own expectations, as well as altering some of the earlier rules, works best:
Expecting anyone who is home in the house to eat dinner with the family is one way to guarantee at least some family time. Another good idea is for families to agree that things like iPods and cell phones won't be used where family members are gathered. If a teen heads for his bedroom before making his calls it won't, of course, mean he's using his phone less. It can help, however, not to establish a family practice of having everyone gathered in one place but communicating with people outside the home.
High-school students have homework and early school days. While kids this age can't be expected to follow the same kind of rules that are right for eight-year-olds, establishing that school nights should include a "decent" bedtime, and that homework must always be handed in when due is a reasonable expectation that may naturally cut down some of the electronics time.
Just as it always helps for parents to talk to younger kids about priorities, values, and balance; talking to teens about the same things, and offering reasons for not allowing electronics to "take over life" is also important for more grown-up kids.
Kids this age usually have more time outside the house than their middle-school-aged siblings have, so their age sometimes builds in a certain amount of face-to-face socializing and other activities.
Besides altering the rules as kids get to be this age, parents may want to ask themselves whether it's such a bad thing that a sixteen-year-old who is home all evening spends that time socializing online, provided his homework is handed in on time.
One other way parents can encourage older kids to have a more balanced approach to electronics is that time-tested approach of setting a good example. When parents turn off the cell phones, and get away from the PC's, long enough to show kids they value them enough to have some real "in-person" communication, kids will see an example of how people who care about one another treat one another. Parents need to keep in mind, too, that balance isn't just achieved by cutting down on one thing. Sometimes it can be achieved by adding more of something else.
The "latest thing" may be ever-changing, and technology may have changed our lives dramatically over recent years. What has not changed is the fact that when families build in lots of love, care, and enjoyable time together even the most amazing technological gadgets tend not to have the power to pull loving family members too far apart.