Parents often ask us questions like “How much time online is okay? Is it okay to get my 5th grader a smartphone? Is it okay that my 14 year-old has an Instagram account for posting her art work?” Parents are hungry for simple, clear, direct answers to such questions so they can feel confident that their children’s device related activity is “okay.” However, we rarely give those types of answers because, for all of those questions, it’s not that simple. 

Generic, age related guidelines for making decisions about device use abound and are quite helpful. Many are based on research findings and information about child development. We refer to such information in many of our posts because it provides a useful framework for building a general understanding about children and their ability to handle technology. However, such guidelines leave out a vital and important source of information about whether any given device related activity “is okay” – knowledge about your child. Your child’s interests, behaviors, and the level of skill they demonstrate in areas such as problem solving, making transitions, and managing emotions are, in the end, the best determinants of whether or not their device use is “okay.”

The truth is that every child is different. Although age related recommendations are an important factor to consider when making device related decisions, your child’s skills are an even more important consideration. Our parenting formula— unplug from worry, plug-in to your kids and teach skills— is specifically designed to help you be curious about your children’s skills and to use that information to teach them what they need to know. When you follow this formula, you will be more confident in your decisions about what is “okay” because you will have better information about what you can and can’t expect from your children. Skills, not years, are the best determinants of whether your children can manage technology safely, independently and responsibly. While it’s generally true that more years mean more skills, it’s not necessarily the case. Just think about any activity you have taught your child how to do— crossing the street, brushing their teeth, cooking a meal, riding a bike. We think it unlikely that you decided they were ready to cross the street by themselves or ride a bike without assistance simply because they were a certain age. Even if you did some research about reasonable ages for independence with these activities, you probably still spent more time observing your child and noticing where their skill level was sufficient and where it needed more support before you left them on their own with these activities. Making decisions about technology use is no different.

Additionally, independent, responsible and balanced device use requires the slow to mature set of skills referred to as executive function skills. How and when those skills mature is not only age related but also child dependent and environment dependent. This means that many factors impact these skills, including the unique make-up of your individual child and the instruction and guidance you give them. That’s why we don’t provide straight forward “yes” or “no” answers about what “is okay” without knowing more about a particular child’s skill level, environment and age. For example, more than a few 14 year-olds lack the decision making skills, impulse control and analytical skills to successfully manage a public Instagram account for posting art. However, some more mature 14-year old artists may have both better developed skills and the benefit of ongoing calm and curious conversations with parents and other adults about analyzing online situations, assessing the risks of posting and responding, etc. Such a 14-year old might very well be able to successfully handle a public Instagram account for posting art. As parents, you are in a much better position to make these judgments than we, or any other experts who don’t know your children, are. By staying curious, not furious, about your children’s skills with handling devices, you can be far more confident about what is “okay” for your child than you will be if you simply follow generic guidelines. Hence our motto – Be Curious, Not Furious!