There's a very simple principle that should underlie how you control your children's access to and use of technology. It has to do with (gasp!) parenting...
Kids with phones picture from Shutterstock
"I just can't get my son off his iPad!"
"Kids are dangerously addicted to technology!"
They're common headlines for tabloid media, with parents bemoaning how much time their children spend on iPads, or on IAP for mobile games, or online generally.
I could link to any number of them going back a number of years, but I'm not particularly inclined right now to give them the oxygen, frankly, because by and large, they all tend to go down the standard, easy hype road of demonising technology and placing the blame squarely on the kids themselves. They're the wild ones, out of control thanks to Apple, Social Media and any other buzzword they can possibly latch onto. Sexting, maybe.
This is without a shadow of a doubt unfair -- both to the tech and to the kids.
Kids are not adults, and they don't have the impulse control that adults develop. Or at least should develop -- I know some adults who never get there either.
Simply thinking that kids will self manage their technology use is about as sensible as leaving them alone overnight in a sweet shop and not expecting hyperactivity, carnage and more than a touch of vomit when you come back in the morning. You can't and shouldn't blame kids for over-using technology -- if they are at all.
On the technology side, so much of the writing around this is peppered with luddite thinking. Tech is confusing, therefore tech is bad. You don't know how it works, so it must be evil. It's the 21st century equivalent of that old gag about your own parents not being able to set the clock on the VCR. Presumably there was a gag similar to that in the pre VCR days -- not being able to tune the radio, perhaps?
Anyway, much of it tends to devolve down to the "why don't you ban it all and let kids be kids" style thinking, and that, to me, is a missed opportunity.
The reality is that we live in an IT age, and for the kids of today it's inextricably linked to their world. They've never known any other. For the middle aged set (I'm amongst them) it's the equivalent of suggesting a world where television doesn't exist.
A simple "block everything and stick your head in the sand" dodges the benefits that technology can bring, not only in a straight educational sense, but also in personal development, social interaction and in dealing with the world as it both is now and is evolving to be. Kids will be kids, and limiting their interactions with technology is essentially limiting their potential for growth.
So what do you do? It's not that hard. Parenting.
Yeah, actual parenting. I'll use my own household as an example. As a tech journalist I have a lot of tech around my home; both the stuff that I own and a constantly revolving array of review products, some of which are very alluring to my kids.
But equally, they know the boundaries, and what they are and aren't allowed to do. This hasn't been a single day, setting-a-rule kind of deal, but instead an ongoing process of negotiation, picking my battles (and a few hills to die on) and making it consistently clear when they're allowed time on a tablet, or with a console game, or to mess around on Facebook.
This involves some headaches on my part, because there's undeniably times where it would be easier to give in and let them play Crossy Road or Minecraft. At the same time, though, they're less bored when they do get to play, because it's earned time by and large, and it means they're open to other activities to fill their time. I'm a big fan of making kids earn their time (when appropriate) in order to give it real value to both me and them.
Are my kids perfect? Far from it. I'm not stupid, and I'm aware that there are times when they're going to stretch the rules. There are times when I let it slide, and times when I apply the rules with full vigour to keep things under control. Yes, it's hard work, and it does involve being properly involved with their lives, rather than relying on an iPad to be a full-time digital babysitter.
It's funny, but the parents who I seem to see bemoaning their kids being on tablets all the time always seem to be the same ones who crumble under the slightest whining from their kids and hand them a phone if they're bored for even a second in a playground, shopping centre or at home. All that's teaching them is that you're easily swayed by complaints, and making the very problem you're complaining about a reality.