Take it from a schoolteacher and mom: Kids need to manage their online activities – and parents need to help them do it
Last year Fortnite invaded my school classroom – as I believe it did in classrooms around the world. Students who were usually on task and high performing were nodding off and ‘forgetting‘ to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or who was the last man standing became part of our early morning check-ins.
Then the phone calls with parents started: Over several months, I had numerous telephone and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids’ performance. When I brought up screen time, there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious of what their children were doing after hours, some didn’t know how to rein in screen time, and some thought they had it all under control – but clearly did not.
I get it. I’m not just a teacher: I’m a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent a whole school holiday trying to keep my own daughter unplugged. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by little, I tried to use my own advice, “However much you read is how much screen time you get”, and reasoning, “Make sure you balance your learning games with your other games.” But then I’d hear my daughter yelling at a friend who’d just left her online game, and I’d feel like I’d lost the battle.
The thing is, I’m not anti-screen. I’ve seen technology bring some amazing teaching moments to my classroom – and to my own life. One student, whom I could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt poem about how he “nearly won” in Fortnite. It became his breakthrough, and he hasn’t stopped writing since. Other kids found parallels in the dystopian books they were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their points.
Those breakthrough moments of connection, creativity and critical thinking are what I strive for as a teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the management of their kids’ screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And knowing schoolchildren as well as I do, I know that they aren’t always able to shut down Fortnite or YouTube without the guidance and support of their parents. I’ve also discovered that tech is never going to be a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others. Finding what is best for your family can involve some trial and error.
These are the strategies that worked for many children and I’m sure I will be trying them with my own this year:
Know what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important. So many of my parents had no idea that their child was staying up until early morning playing games. I heard more than once, “I have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until now.”
I remind them that their kids are not bad kids, and they are just testing the boundaries – so set and enforce them!
Control the Wi-Fi
I touched base with some parents after their children made improvements in class, and found that they had put in place simple household Internet controls. The kids each had a password to access the Internet, and the parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to ‘override’ this function!
Remove the temptation
Some families took all screens out of the children’s bedrooms and stored cell phones in a locked charging box until morning. This might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students, this worked. He was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He later acknowledged that he needed help – beyond the gaming community.
I’ve had students tell their parents that they have online homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making the dining room table or another central location the homework space can make it easier to keep an eye on your children.
Kids need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out children for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is important. One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve the right to change my mind.