Protecting kids in the world of social media, a Cybersafe excerpt

An excerpt from CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Digital Kids in the World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media.

by Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP

Screen Time and Childhood

Have you ever tried to go “screen-less”? I often tell the story of taking my girls to New York City on an April vacation, looking forward to Turnoff Week. This is a semiannual event that encourages families to flip off the screens and bond more in the unplugged real world with books, board games, and outdoor fun. Being a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Council on Communications and Media, this cause had particular meaning for me because this is the issue we try to help parents practice. So I blogged about it and told all my friends at the AAP and in my life that I was going to do this.

As soon as we arrived, I knew this would be more of a challenge than I was ready for. Back home in Massachusetts (not exactly what I’d call remote living!), screens were in homes and places we opted to put them, including cars and even refrigerators. Our home only has basic screens—TVs, computers, and cell phones. We’re very old-fashioned that way!

Well, our first cab ride—a screen. Times Square—thousands of screens. The hotel elevator—more screens. The hotel lobby—many more screens.

I had 2 choices: blindfold my girls as we explored New York City, or simply keep them so busy our focus would not be on the screens but on our tasks at hand—the shows, the museums, and hitting every deli and diner we could find. By the time we were back in the hotel room each evening, my girls passed out from happy exhaustion so quickly, no extra screens were required. That was the best I could do, so I did it.

They were both tweens at the time, so we could talk about my dilemma. They understood my passion for this cause and why I’m concerned about small children, as well as older children, being exposed to too many screens so young. Of all the kids viewing screens, it’s the smallest of children I’m concerned about the most. I can’t help worry that they have too many screens in their lives at the expense of what matters most in childhood—playtime.

Are Young Kids Online?

We don’t need studies to know that the very youngest members of our society are online. The images are everywhere.
• Toddlers and preschoolers using their parent’s smartphones and digital devices to watch videos and play with the text screens
• Small kids playing with gaming devices in and out of home and playing games on their parents’ and older siblings’ phones
• TV games that are essentially small computers that glue our small children to all sorts of devices under the excuse of “education” or “fitness”
• And of course, some young children with phones of their own at a variety of very young ages

What’s interesting in the world of parenting is that while there are some milestones that we take for granted our kids will do when they are ready or at a similar age as other kids, there are other issues we worry about and go to great lengths to sort out the “right” path to take. Sometimes we develop a strong gut opinion and just go with it. Other times we poll friends and relatives to get a sense of past precedent that we may not be aware of. And other moments we’ll turn to experts by contacting a trusted community figure by phone and e-mail or by doing Internet research. We tend to do best when we have a past path to follow from other generations of parents. For hot-button topics such as sex, driving, first dates, and clothing appropriateness, we may feel less lost than we do on some of the newer high-tech issues, where the path is partially blazed or not blazed at all.

At the same time, can we really blame technology entirely? If you think back through the past few generations, they all have had similar issues with increasing technology, struggles with parents about wardrobe, and growing independence of teens. The Internet and digital world is acting as a gigantic amplifier for these issues and adds a layer of daunting complexity with its 24/7 availability, but the core issues are the same.

Instead of being blinded by the bells and whistles of technology and thinking of it as glorified toys, it’s better to discuss issues about technology with our kids as soon as they are able to use it (which means at much earlier ages than we currently do)! We already do this by helping our kids negotiate the world they explore, from safety around the house to safety beyond the house, and mold our discussions depending on our kids’ ages. In fact, we grow these discussions as our kids grow. Now that their world involves technology, we have to include those topics too. As with all important issues in life, the younger children are, the more impressionable they are, and this is no less true with technology. For young children, including tweens, the goal is to empower them to use technology to the best of their abilities and have fun with it, but learn when to hit the off switch and change to unplugged childhood activities. Especially for our youngest kids, a balance of screen and non-screen time is what helps them thrive best, with a big skew toward non-screen activities!

Early Childhood: Kids, Computers, and the Boxes They Arrive In

How many times have you hunted high and low for a toy for your toddler or preschooler, only to have your child more interested in the ribbon on the package or the box itself? We’ve all had that experience and have the pictures to prove it! So before you rush out and buy your preschooler or toddler a computer or digital device, be realistic that the box may win out over the gadget. Why? Because this age group is all about creativity, imagination, and hiding! The digital whatever that so intrigues you likely won’t keep their attention span for more than a few minutes, and at some point they will use it for something you likely never thought it could be used for, such as a javelin or even a doll. This is just the reality of small kids.

The other issue we have with young children is not thinking long term. We often think of the high-tech world in terms of a game or toy or as “just entertainment.” What we have to do is start recognizing that the high-tech world involves screens, content, and an experience that affects our kids directly as well as indirectly, even at young ages. So before we hit the on switch to anything high tech, we should take a moment to ask ourselves if the time spent on that activity is worth the time put into that activity.

We expend this sort of reasoning with every decision we make for our kids, from crossing the street, to playdates, to attending camp (day or overnight?), to sleepovers with friends, to nutritional issues, to name a few. Now we need to go a step further and apply that same sound reasoning to everything high tech, from using the computer, to which TV show or movie to watch, to cell phone issues.

Deciding to Turn the Switch On

Do you stick to your guns or enter into negotiations? Like most parents, you’ve likely found it’s a balancing act. Some issues you can give in on, while others you more or less stick to your guns.

Most of us find, though, that sticking to our position blindly backfires once our children are old enough to problem solve and directly ask something by name, especially if that something has a reference point in the peer group. Are we going to be the one parent to say “no” or do we cave? These are not straightforward issues and we have to balance our own values with what others are doing. Peer pressure runs in parenting groups too, and we’ve all experienced it.

With decisions relating to our children, we often end up using a few tried and-true references points to help guide us.

1. Is there a norm? This can be helpful in guiding us because if there seems to be a societal norm for kids for a particular issue, it can give us perspective on our own views. Are we just out of our comfort zone? Is this an issue pushing our moral compass beyond what we have considered? Keep in mind that having the norm doesn’t mean that the issue is right for our family or kids, but it is helpful to be mindful of what is considered “standard” in society. If we are going to buck that, we have to do so thoughtfully because it will be our kids who may pay the price in their peer groups, not we parents. Many parents don’t consider this point of view, so it is worth noting.

2. What’s our child’s position? If our child is old enough to ask for something, we have to at least be thoughtful in our response and problem solve a bit to see if our child is mature enough for what is being asked. I met some parents not long back who once told me they would “never” allow their daughter to have a cell phone before the end of middle school (sixth through eighth grade.) By the end of sixth grade, however, all their daughter’s friends had cell phones and their daughter was able to prove to them that she knew how to use it and was willing to follow their rules. They were also working parents and started to recognize that having a cell phone could be helpful within their family. As a family, they worked through the issue and entering seventh grade, surprised their daughter with a cell phone for her birthday.

3. Should price or payment matter? I hear a lot of parents say that kids should not have technology such as cell phones or e-mail until that child can “pay” for the gizmo. I understand the life lesson and agree. In my family, my girls do chores and we have family rules that have to be followed for proper use of the cell phone. However, can we expect our kids to really hold down a job? We have to be careful about what we expect of our kids because a great deal is expected of them already and the extra burden may not be fair to them.

4. Don’t judge others until you are in their shoes. It can be tempting to think you’ll know what you’ll do with technology before your kids are at that point or to think you have it all figured out, but the honest truth is you don’t know more than you did for any other parenting issue you thought you had sorted out better than any parent before you. That’s a lesson we all learn quickly. Until we walk in the shoes of parenting a child at a particular age and stage, we have no clue what we’ll do! We have to recognize that early on and not add to our burden with rules and ideas we’ll never be able to follow.

5. What’s your style? Our kids are already using technology and gravitating toward it. Instead of being fearful of it, a better path is to allow our kids to engage in technology at normative ages for each venue and to learn about those venues so we can keep an eye out for issues and be part of our kids’ digital lives. When our kids are young, we can control a great deal if we want to. As they get older, they will naturally break away and we need to let them do that. Part of this process will involve our kids becoming more digital and us needing to allow that to occur. Parents who are relaxed with a more “go with the flow” style will handle this better than parents who tend to become anxious when they don’t know what their kids are up to or who need to control or plan their kids’ entire lives (the so-called helicopter parents).

Stepping Into the Digital Pond

There really is no “right” age to allow our kids to dip a toe into the digital pond, but if we pay attention to the issues, we’ll be able to decide what makes sense for our kids without getting in the way of a process that will occur whether we like it or not. At the same time, there is no rush. We can keep the pace reasonable and developmentally appropriate and allow our kids to use technologies that make sense without granting them access to technologies that don’t make sense for their age.

For example, cell phone use seems to be trickling to younger ages. Studies and reports show that middle school is the time that adoption for cell phones and technology really takes off. Before then, kids who have cell phones don’t use them as expected. Why do they have them? Families I know who give their elementary school kids cell phones do so mostly for safety issues.

1. Medical: Some children have emergency issues for which every second counts. For these kids, having access to a cell phone matters because landlines are not as easy to find as when we were kids, even in afterschool programs (although the adults supervising those programs usually carry cell phones, or should). Some families whose children have medical issues feel more secure knowing their child can reach them if symptoms start to flare. Assuming these kids are supervised, this may not be needed but does give families peace of mind.

2. Emergencies: With both parents often working out of the home, many feel more secure if kids of all ages have a way to reach them and vice versa. This is an issue every family needs to sort out independently, but if elementary school kids are supervised after school, a personal cell phone for the child may not be needed.

Reproduced with permission from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Copyright © 2011 Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without prior permission from the publisher.

Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe is a pediatrician and author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Digital Kids in the World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media. The book may be purchased at

Submit a guest post and be heard.