It’s the time of year when kids are given a lot of toys, and many of these will be smartphones, gaming consoles or computers.
So it’s also a good time to think about how that technology will be used, and how to manage the tensions that can arise when parents and children have different expectations about usage.
Family media plans are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics — the organisation that sets screen time recommendations for children — as a positive way that parents can agree with their children about using technology.
I came across the concept of media plans only by chance.
A major event had been reached in my household: my 12-year-old finally got her own smartphone.
The timing of this event was negotiated years ago, but as it came closer I became increasingly nervous about the power I was putting in her hands.
According to Joanne Orlando — an expert in children and technology at Western Sydney University — moments like this are perfect for putting in place a family media plan.
“Often it’s when you’re just about to embark on a new milestone with a child, say you’re just about to give them a new mobile phone, or something else that you think is quite major,” she said.
“Or it could be to sort out an ongoing argument or stressful situation about their technology use.”
A media plan can cover any type of technology, including gaming, and can cover whatever the family finds relevant.
Online templates, such as the AAP’s Media Plan, provide a checklist of age-appropriate issues, such as screen free zones and time, balancing online and offline time, manners, curfews, sleep and exercise.
“I think the good thing about it [the AAP’s media plan] is that it gives parents ideas about what things they need to discuss and decide on,” said Dr Orlando, who has worked as an advisor for the Australian government, Apple, and ABC TV’s Play School.
But whatever you include in a media plan, the important thing is that it’s approached as a mutual decision, she said.
Say for example, the issue of how much time is spent by the child on their iPad every day after school:
“The parent might say ‘Ten minutes’, the child might say ‘Why does there have to be a limit?’. So you need to find a middle ground in there because it needs to be a win-win situation.”
It’s not a ‘set and forget’ scenario
Once you’ve decided what you want to put in your media plan and negotiated the points with your children, it’s important not to just lock it in and leave it.
“Maybe it’s all good, or maybe there are some adjustments that you both want to make,” said Dr Orlando.
“It’s about adjusting to the child’s age, but also what’s happening in their world at that time as well.”
Keep your eye on the end-game
A key goal of parenting is to lead your child into independence, and that includes helping them learn to use technology safely.
For this reason, Dr Orlando suggests introducing your child to social media via a joint or family account.
“The rule is that whatever you post you do it together… showing them the rules and the etiquette. Showing where the dangers are as they pop up while you’re on there. It’s a good way to ease kids into having their own social media account.”
And by generating an open environment, your child is more likely to go to you when something is wrong.
“If you set that up it’s more likely that your child is going to show you things that they’re doing on Instagram or online. So that’s a bit of a long term strategy,” Dr Orlando said.
Be aware that their world is different
Kids are entertained and use their phones in very different ways to adults. Restrictions that adults might like to put in place may have unanticipated impacts on their kids, said Dr Orlando.
“A lot of kids ask for help with homework on social media from their friends, because they may not remember what their teacher said.”
Then there’s also FOMO.
“While teenagers are on social media, they don’t want to miss out on any of the conversations that are online, because there will be an effect when they go to school the next day,” Dr Orlando said.
Implementing a device curfew — such as via Apple’s screen time —can have serious implications for teenagers. In addition to FOMO and missing out on homework help, their friends may view their absence from conversations as a form of rejection.
But that doesn’t mean screen-time can’t be up for negotiation.
Some teens actually find relief in having a restriction put in place, said Dr Orlando.
“If they’re not going to be on social media from a particular time, they needs to make that clear to their friends – ‘I’m not allowed to go after 8pm or 9pm’ — so their friends can put that behaviour in perspective.”