Having grown up in the '70s, my natural default as a parent has been to rip the electronic devices out of my kids' hands and send them outside to play. Surely if I do this often enough, I will find them creating magical moments together building a fort, perfecting a soccer juggle or drawing sidewalk chalk masterpieces, right?
Wrong. Expecting my kids' childhood to mimic mine defies common sense—the world changes for each parenting generation. The biggest difference today—and the one challenging parenting norms—is the complete and total proliferation of media that permeates our jam-packed lives. It's truly everywhere, and I know my default reaction to say "no screens" or "turn it off" is falling on deaf ears as my kids get older.
So, what does this mean for parenting? How can we create a symbiotic, even positive, relationship with the digital media that surrounds us? Here are three things we've done recently that have changed the game in our household:
1. Take a New Mindset
As simple as it sounds, it starts with changing the way you think about media and technology. I had previously thought of digital media consumption as dessert for my kids: it's bad for you, but you can have a little. After learning more, I now believe that technology offers a world of new opportunities and even health benefits to kids—just like vegetables.
I recently learned about a concept being pioneered by Australian psychologist Jocelyn Brewer called "Digital Nutrition." As Brewer says, "Imagine if activities we use technology for...came with nutritional labels to help us understand their impact." The team at Common Sense Media is on this as well—assigning insightful ratings to help parents make media choices for their kids. Clearly, it's not the medium of technology that can be healthy or unhealthy, it's the messaging, the content and our usage. Which brings me to my second point:
2. Own the Content in Your Household
It's all about the content—the messages being delivered directly to our kids' impressionable minds in subtle and not so subtle ways. Similar to how a single paper cut would hardly ruin your day—but a thousand paper cuts certainly would—the messaging in much of the media content for kids today, taken individually may not seem so bad. But the hours and hours of digital media kids consume, across different platforms and devices, certainly do add up.
And guess what? Kids prefer the equivalent of "junk food." It's no surprise that apps, games and movies that are mindless, crude or exceedingly silly hold great appeal to kids. Cheetos are delicious, too, but we've let the bad stuff proliferate in such a way that we're essentially feeding our kids garbage.
This is what really got me thinking, if negative media has such a massive impact, what about the power of positive content? The idea that we could actually inspire our kids by curating the content they consume has been so powerful to me, in fact, that I've created a company called SmartFeed to help parents do just that. It is a huge part of our job as parents to own the content our kids consume. Make it powerful and inspiring, and we'll make our kids strong and inspired.
3. Raise Good Digital Citizens
The concept of digital citizenship is not new, but it has not proliferated in the way that it should. Digital citizenship goes beyond just teaching your kids about cyberbullies and the "forever" nature of everything posted. It also should include learning to self-regulate and to set limits on how we use technology.
Going back to Digital Nutrition, it's not healthy to overeat, nor is it healthy to be staring at a screen 24/7. Learning to choose to put devices away and connect as real live humans is a critical skill. It's something we work on actively in our house. We started with a window every evening where all electronics are off limits—to the kids and the adults.
We're seeing more magical moments of the new media kind in our house with our newfound commitment to screen time done right. My kids are inspired to get out and try trampoline tricks they saw on YouTube. They want to learn about other cultures from unique documentaries. We're all motivated to connect as a family from the world of great content we are discovering.
Looking back, it's easy for me to romanticize my childhood. In reality, there were probably a lot more moments riding my bike around in a circle, totally bored. If only I'd had a tablet handy to watch "how to do a perfect wheelie." I could have been a pro—maybe even an Olympian—with a little inspiration.
Linsly Donnelly, mom of three, is a start-up veteran. Aside from being co-founder and C.O.O. of Joann.com and C.M.O. of Wine.com, she is now the founder and CEO of SmartFeed, which offers parents better control over what their kids watch, play and share.