Q: We try to manage the "screen" lives of our tweens. Yet every time we turn around, there's a new app to worry about or another social media horror story to scare parents. Help!
A: You're in good company. Many parents are overwhelmed, says Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor of Common Sense Media, which has shown that 8- to 12-year-olds are averaging nearly six hours a day on entertainment media, while 13- to 18-year-olds average a whopping nine hours. With numbers like those, it's understandable that parents want strategies to keep kids' online experiences safe, productive and fun.
Here's the good news: Research shows that tweens and teens whose parents are actively involved in their kids' media lives consume less media, make better choices and understand more of what they're interacting with.
"So, even if your kids know way more about media and technology than you do, you can still help them navigate the digital world safely, responsibly and productively," says Knorr.
She suggests these media-savvy New Year's resolutions:
Have the talk -- the one about being safe, smart and responsible online. "You don't have to be an Instagram expert to give your kids a solid understanding of how you expect them to behave," Knorr explains.
Keep social media in perspective. Just because your teen is on Snapchat every minute doesn't mean she's really having fun. According to Common Sense Media, 45 percent of teens use social media every day, but only 36 percent say they enjoy it "a lot." Teens whose parents talk to them about their social media lives report being happier.
"As with anything, social media has good, bad and neutral aspects, but kids need parents to help them sort out which is which," says Knorr.
Create a media plan. It's easy for media and technology to overstay their welcome. Make a plan to stay in control. It might include:
-- Screen-free zones. Certain areas (bedrooms, for example) and times (such as dinner) are off-limits to phones, tablets, TVs and other devices, so they're reserved for rest and family time.
-- Less multitasking during homework. Little distractions can add up to big misses in school.
-- Enforcing limits. "Everyone needs to disengage from their devices, adults included," says Knorr. "But without someone to draw the line, tweens and teens may text late into the night or play video games till they look like zombies. Establish appropriate boundaries and make sure you enforce them."
-- Encourage informal learning. Studying guitar from YouTube videos, reading "Star Wars" wikis and watching TED Talks are all valuable screen activities that you can encourage and share as a family.
-- Promote healthy skepticism. Help kids think critically about the media they consume. Ads and content are increasingly intertwined, and studies have shown that children have a hard time distinguishing between the two. Online stories are routinely unmasked as hoaxes, and companies' privacy policies are filled with legalese. You should ask yourself who made the content you're watching and who the audience is. Think about the content's messages. (For more resources, go to commonsensemedia.com.)
-- Celebrate kids using social media for good. Across the world, tweens and teens who are tired of online negativity pop up with positive messages to share. Celebrate those examples and talk to your kids about the power of social media for productive social change.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)