Leticia Barr started the blog Tech Savvy Mama about five years ago, after her mother-in-law offered a hand-me-down computer to Barr’s daughter, who was 4 at the time.
Barr, a Silver Spring, Md., mother of two, was torn.
Sure, a computer would offer many rich educational opportunities, but it also brought questions. Where would she and her husband put it? How would they monitor their daughter’s use? How much time in front of the computer would be too much?
Barr, at the time, was in charge of helping teachers find ways to integrate technology into their classrooms in Montgomery County (Md.) Schools. The family accepted the computer, and she decided to write about their experiences using technology with their children, who are now 9 and 6.
“I started thinking that if this is my background and I’m overwhelmed, what does the average parent do?” said Barr, who now blogs full time. “I started writing about things we knew we were using in schools with the students and sites that I loved.”
I recently spoke with Barr by phone about how parents can and should monitor their kids’ use of computers, televisions and electronic devices. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Many of our parenting choices are based on what our own parents did, but with technology there is no road map. How can parents deal with that?
A: There are a lot of uncharted waters in terms of the kinds of devices available. Are all screens the same? Essentially they are. Instead of thinking about the television being the main screen in the home, you’re thinking about tablets, smartphones, e-readers. It’s about us changing the paradigms we have in our minds, being open-minded and flexible, and embracing the technology with our kids and learning along with them.
Q: How do you regulate technology use in your house?
A: My kids are so busy. On a typical day I drop them off at school, and when they come home, it’s homework time. They'll go outside, and I feel like they need to wiggle and blow off steam after an intense day of learning. They generally don’t ask to get on the computer. My 9-year-old daughter has an online component to her homework, so we do that, then we read. As I’m getting ready for dinner, they'll have maybe 30 minutes of television.
It may change a bit during the summer, and on weekends it’s a little bit more lax; they get up and can go on the computer and go on their favorite websites. They generally don’t spend a lot of time in front of the screen. I don’t know if it’s because it’s my job or we’re just busy.
One thing I heard at one of the panels I was speaking on recently was to treat it like you’re starting with your glass empty, and filling it with whatever is important to you as a family. Whatever you have left in your glass, that’s when you can do your screen time. Just as you have a healthy diet, it’s important to have a healthy diet related to media.
Q: What are the biggest concerns parents should have about their kids and technology?
A: It varies according to their age. With toddlers and preschoolers, you want to make sure you are finding age-appropriate content. As they get older, the dialogue changes. Early elementary school kids need to feel a sense of trust. They need to know they won’t get in trouble if something mean, suspicious or scary happens. You lay the foundation of what it means to be a good friend.
As they get older and they are using it for homework, you talk about what it means to be a good digital citizen. Tweens are all about mobile devices these days, e-readers or iPods. You need to teach them about being conscious about things like in-app purchases, looking at apps and talking about the things they are doing on there.
With teens, texting and driving is absolutely huge. It’s also really important that parents model that behavior. It’s really hypocritical if we tell kids not to text and drive and we’re picking up the phone to check e-mail.
Q: Is there a difference between good technology and bad when it comes to screen time for your kids?
A: It’s about how we frame things, and finding a balance. There are studies about how things like video gaming and the concentration involved can really make kids pay attention to one task. There are problem-solving skills involved, and there can be interaction if you’re playing with others in an online environment. There’s a good and bad side for everything. We can always find faults with technology, but it’s here to stay, we just need to be really mindful about what our kids doing on it, and having proactive conversations about it.