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My 9-year-old is in this situation concerning media:

  • She has limited access to a family PC (restricted account with a time limit of X minutes per day). She uses that for Youtube and Minecraft.
  • She has a Nintendo Switch (again, with a daily time limit and parental controls in place). She sometimes gets games as present, and has to buy further games from her pocket money. No trouble here - she does not have that many games, and does not really want anymore either. Minecraft+Mario more or less do it for her.
  • She plays appropriate co-op games together with me on the PC (e.g., Humans Fall Flat, Trine etc.), which does not count against her time limit. Games are not per se a bad thing in our family and there is no "bad taste" about them.
  • She has no online identity of any kind (i.e., no account with which she can chat etc., anywhere).
  • There is no TV (sure BlueRay/DVD, but no classical TV/Netflix/etc. except for Youtube); and she's not missing that - never experienced it.

But right now, she's hitting that age where everybody else has "everything" (laptops, tablets, smartphones, YouTube accounts, ...) and she has "nothing". It is in fact true that she sees those devices all around her - her (almost adult) sibling obviously has an unlimited smartphone; I do; and most of her friends have some kind of device (usually consoles/tablets, and occasionally smartphones).

The issue is not so much the technology or even prices (yesterdays devices are cheap enough on ebay and would be more than sufficient), but about her getting very much frustrated by the fact that there are these limitations imposed upon her (time limits, parental controls...). It is also not about wanting to have longer time limits at all; it is about owning stuff (devices, accounts, the power to decide when and what to do).

The reason why I employ those controls are:

  • I do trust her completely that she would not knowingly do something "bad". I.e., she has earned this trust over and over again in the past in everything she does in the digital and analog world. But I also do know fully well that she still has the normal children naivete/gullibility and is not ready yet for, for example, social media; i.e., if she gets a friend request in some online game, she is exceedingly happy about having a friend; she cannot yet distinguish what that word means in an online setting from what a real friend is. I am not trusting her not to divulge sensitive information quite yet; and also I am just a bit loath to devalue the concept of friendship in any way - she is not having an easy time building friendship with same-old real-world acquaintances (she has one actual friend, but it's labour to keep it that way...).
  • I know from experience that when I do relinquish the time limits (e.g., during holidays), she will more or less be online full-time, and do nothing else anymore; with all associated effects (being irritable, "down" etc.). The pull of that medium is all to irresistible, and again, I know from own experience how that works. Frankly, I want to protect her from that as long as humanly possible.
  • Aside from being creative and tinkering around with all kinds of stuff (cardboard, "slime" etc.), she has no other hobbies (sports, instrument etc.). I want to give her some "downtime" from the stuff that would consumer her complete time so that there is some chance for her to develop an interest in a real-world skill, which, as we know, are easiest to obtain in the age bracket she is entering now. I would not force some hobby on her; I did and do offer her things regularly (i.e., encourage her to test out hobbies; go to trial days together with her etc.) and so far there was nothing which really sparked her interest. But I'm pretty sure from what I am seeing around me in other families that if her time is consumed by devices, there is little to no chance that something will develop.

With her older sister, we were very happy with waiting until 13 years until she had her first PC (restricted), and 15 until the first unrestricted smartphone; and having all limits be mostly technical instead of constant "manual" fighting over time removed all cause of day-to-day conflict. That one was hardly interested in anything though, so there was really no problem to solve, at all.

But this time around, the world has moved on, and continuing like this for 4 more years seems counterproductive - she is getting the feeling right now that she is being suppressed compared to others, that we are intentionally "mean" to her etc. Yes, I do know that kids know how to "play" their parents, but there certainly is something more going on in her mind currently, and there would be a good point in time to grow, right now.

I would love her to have complete ownership and accountability/responsibility for her stuff, and it would be great for her development, I think. I'm more or less just looking for a kind of "framework" to get this up and running smoothly, without falling into the obvious parental traps...

How do you do that with your children? Did you have a good solution? Did it work? Do you just give them free access and manage all the issues that may or may not crop up in the old-fashioned way?

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I have an adult daughter and an 8 year old son, so I have both been through this before and and am going through this again now.

We are a very technically wired in family. Everyone in the household has at least a desktop or laptop PC and a smart phone. I work remotely from home, in an IT field, so my days are spent in front of a screen. In addition, the entire family involved in various facets and forms of video and webcast production, so it is only natural that all of us spends a chunk of our time either producing or featuring in content.

My daughter experienced just about every schooling format available to us at one point or another, and my son is homeschooled. Since he is homeschooled, he is essentially under parental supervision all the time. We don't strictly regulate his social life, but most of his associates families share our values so we have not had the issues that you might see in a school setting.

Part 1: Parental controls (or not)

We tried parental controls on the PC for all of 2 weeks when my daughter was 9-ish. None of the software required for her schoolwork would run unless we logged in with admin privileges on her desktop, bypassing parental controls. Since she was always logged in with admin privileges, there was no point to maintaining the parental control software. A decade later the software may be better, but IMHO it's not worth the hassle.

Parental control became "parent is present, we have control". Her PC was (and now my son's PC is) located in the living room, where it is easily supervised.

We bought her a flip phone when she was 11 because we had (and still have) no land line. If she was going to be home alone babysitting her infant brother we needed her to have a phone, whether or not she wanted one. When we changed phone carriers, it was less expensive to purchase smart phones than flip phones, so she ended up with a smart phone. Having already learned our lesson about parental controls, it was wide open.

She only ever had one issue she couldn't handle on her own - in 10th grade, a boy she was partnered with for a school project wanted some inappropriate pictures from her. She handed me the phone and I informed him via text that she would be doing the project on her own, and he was not to speak with her again (I did not add "on pain of pain", although I thought about it at the time). That was the end of it. Note that their communication was intended for a school assignment, so parental controls and whitelisting would not have prevented the issue at all. the boy's number would have been whitelisted because they were required to talk with each other.

Since then, every device she has owned has been her own purchase, and I had no legitimate need or claim for control of the device. Devices she didn't break have been passed down to her brother as she upgraded. When she passed down her Android phone (without SIM card) she installed parental controls. That lasted about 2 weeks, and she learned the same lesson we had learned 10 years earlier - it's not worth the hassle. It doesn't do a good job of protecting kids from unwanted content while allowing any reasonable degree of usage of the device.

My son has had his own YouTube account since he was 6. He has featured in a number of clips including some of his own productions, his sister's productions (professional videographer), and a commercial or two. He is also has a number of production credits as title artist, camera operator, and switch operator in studio webcast productions, which he has linked to his youtube account.

Once granted unlimited access on his phone, my son went wild for about 2 weeks, downloading every game he saw a link for, then got bored. The phone mostly sits on his desk now, and is usually not even charged when he wants to use it to read or watch videos.

As a volunteer, I produce a weekly webcast with preteen and teen volunteers. I start recruiting the kids at 11 yeas old (6th grade). All that I have recruited in the past 4 years have had a device.

We use a simple conference call to coordinate within the crew. About half the kids devices are wide open. However, others are locked down so tight that the kids can't even dial in to a conference call without a parent logging in. The irony is that I trust the kids with thousands of dollars in studio gear, and their parents can't trust them to make or receive a phone call.

The training course we have invested in uses Facebook for face-to-face time with the instructors. Kids whose devices are locked down are also typically under a social media ban, and cannot fully participate in classes.

Part 2: Keeping the kids off the devices

As you can probably guess, electronics are so integrated into my family's lives that we don't even think in terms of "screen time". My occupation has me in front of a screen 8 or more hours per day, and my son's education is partially on the computer.

My son participates in a number of activities that get him off the device. They weren't planned that way, it just happened. On a weekly basis he participates in Trail Life USA (an outdoors and leadership program similar to scouts), tabletop and card games with people of all ages (devices are allowed because it's the easiest way to look up and resolve the rules, but devices aren't central), and other offline activities.

Part 3: Trends that will impact your decision

Schools today are starting to distribute text books electronically. The cost difference between electronic and paper is such that it often less expensive to purchase loaner devices for kids who don't bring their own than it is to purchase the paper textbooks.

They used to lock down the devices, but the locks blocked about half of school content without appreciably affecting the amount of "illicit" material that was downloaded. Now, many schools release the devices to students unlocked and do a factory reset on return or repair. A lot of schools are going to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), since most kids are coming to school with devices by about 5th grade.

When kids enter kindergarten in my state, they are automatically given an email address on GMail that is managed by the school board. By 5th grade, about half of their homework is turned in electronically. By 10th grade, virtually all homework is turned in electronically.

Part 4: Other Observations

Our entire family plays World of Warcraft together. Playing "World of Warcraft" and having to use chat to communicate with other players outside of the family was what galvanized my daughter to quit avoiding reading and to understand that spelling was important.

My son has started to learn java programming because he wanted to make minecraft mods. The development environment (the same tool set that I use in my profession) requires administrative privileges on his PC.

Part of your observation is about the naivete of younger children. My son regularly games (real life, not online) with teenagers, so he's lost some of that naivete. I've had to ask some of the teens to explain some of the things they said to him (much to my amusement and their embarrassment), but so far that has only needed to happen once. Since he associates with a broad range of age groups, he has developed a lot of ability to hold his own in situations with older people.

  • Thanks for your long answer. I am not adverse to screen time in itself at all (I work in IT myself, I'd love her to play an active role around it, I'm occasionally nudging her in the direction of tinkering around with electronics, light stuff similar to programming etc.); that's why I'm looking for advice on the parental aspects. It seems your family is much more integrated than mine, regarding this - my family (except myself) uses screen time to consume, exclusively; and I don't see just "consuming" to be as healthy as what's going on in yours... – AnoE Jan 2 at 6:30
  • What you mention about parental controls and schoolwork. What a frustration I had. I'm not sure I even understand how those things are blocked by parental controls, seems rather dumb to me. As such, I had to become more liberal with the limitations I was setting. – user20343 Jan 2 at 22:55
  • Programmers tend to work with admin privileges, and education software houses tend to use cheap labor and dont give them time to test. I worked one project for a "reputable" Canadian label and lost all respect for that sector o the industry. – pojo-guy Jan 2 at 23:12

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