One of the best ways to understand a child’s relationship to technology and media is to meaningfully engage with that technology and media with that child. This cooperative relationship is called “media mentoring.”
Too often, adults model “do as I say, not as I do” behaviors with technology. We ask children to spend more time prosocially engaging with peers, but then bury our heads in our devices or regularly check those devices during times ideal for meaningful interpersonal interaction. Terms “distracted parenting” by some modern researchers, it is an easy pattern into which to fall, and a challenging one to break. However, collaboratively spending time together using the same high-quality media can help encourage prosocial interaction during the times media is in use, and then collaboratively spending time together without media can help model a positive and healthy “with-and-without” balance.
Good media mentors do not approach the use of technology from a perspective of “limitation” or “prohibition,” but from the perspective of improving children’s understanding of healthy habits and helping them to make good choices for themselves. Parents who are media mentors don’t “monitor,” but “mentor,” engaging meaningfully with good questions, allowing children healthy choice, and helping them to understand the reasons why restrictions that are put in place are good for them.
Take for example playing an online game during recreational screen time: A restrictive attitude may manifest as the statement, “That game is not okay. Stop playing it or I’m taking your iPad away.” A mentor attitude might manifest in the questions, “What about that game do you like? Do you think the violence depicted is okay? What other kind of games might have the things you like, without something you know to be bad, like that kind of violence?”
Technology can and should be an enhancement to a child’s life, used appropriately; it can and should allow children to play, to cooperate, to learn, and to explore in ways that would not otherwise be possible. Play is a critical aspect of growing up, and playing with media is not intrinsically bad for kids. However, striking a positive balance between media-based play and physical play is important, and ensuring that the media kids experience during play is healthy is an important part of being a media mentor.