“Brain Hacking” Part 3: Training Kids To Use Devices Healthfully

Technology can be our master or our tool. I think of electronic devices in our kids hands like a drug: good when used at the right doses, for the right purpose and in the right time and context, but also a dangerous poison. Education and training are required to discern what makes the difference.

In this way our devices are also like cars. And like cars did a century ago, handheld devices are changing our economy, culture and society itself. For our kids, growing up as the “digital natives” they are, this technology will be a nearly inevitable part of their life.

Even though we know how important it is for our kids to learn to drive in today’s world, we would never hand our car keys to an 11-year-old and, without providing any training supervision or structure, say “Good luck! Have fun and be careful!” And yet that is often what we do when we hand our kids their first smartphone, iPod, iPad, X-box, computer etc.

There is a better way. When kids learn to drive, we require them to first learn the rules of the road, then drive with supervision, then gradually give them more freedom as they demonstrate the ability to follow those rules. Even when they are driving on their own, the privilege (not right) to drive is inseparably connected with demonstrating responsibility and competence. So it should be with our electronic devices.

How can we apply that to our kids learning to use a device in safe, healthy ways? How can we train our kids to manage their devices so those devices don’t manage them?

How do we avoid the real problem of “brain hacking?” (Which is how devices and the things we do on them unhealthily influence our thoughts, feelings and actions) We’ve learned about how this can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction, isolation, and even violence. But is it possible for kids to use media and technology to improve their lives? If used in healthy ways?


The first step in teaching healthy media use is making and implementing a Family Media Plan with your kids. Your Family Media Plan accomplishes the following things:

  • specifies ages at which children in your family can use devices
  • defines clear responsibilities that unlock the privilege of having a device
  • establishes a process for the approval of individual apps and games
  • designates time that screens will be turned in to Mom and Dad at night
  • creates no-phone-zones like bedrooms and the dinner table
  • sets maximum quantity of screen time per day
  • establishes the rights of parents to monitor and regulate media use

You can make your own family media plan using a web-based tool created by the American Academy of Pediatrics here. For more guidance on making a family media plan visit www.betterscreentime.com.

The family media plan not only sets limits, it teaches kids healthy use. Thus, it is essential to keep in mind the four following principles about the healthy use of electronic devices. In order to be healthy, screen use should:

  • Facilitate human interaction, not detract from it
  • Not replace healthy behaviors
  • Not be over relied-on for relieving stress, boredom or anxiety
  • Be viewed as a privilege, not a right

Your Family Media Plan will spell out the specifics of how you apply these four principles to each child. You will need to adapt your approach depending on each child’s maturity, age, needs, temperament, and gender.

Also, keep in mind that not all screen time is the same and it matters what they do with screens, not just how much time they spend doing it. Keep in mind the distinction between “digital vegetables” and “digital candy.” More on this in a minute.

The following are my recommendations on how to apply the above principles to each age group. Feel free to scroll ahead to the section that applies to your kids’ ages.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem, courtesy of Unsplash

Young Children (age 0-2)

Face to face interaction is critical for the learning and development of children in this age group. They are also very drawn to electronic devices. So in many ways, this is the most important (and easiest) age to regulate. Setting consistent limits at this age will make setting limits easier at every subsequent age.

  • I recommend zero hand-held screen time for this age. See my prior post to read about how negative screen time can be for kids this age. The one exception is video-chatting with relatives which has been shown to help kids learn new words.
  • Don’t let screen time replace the human interaction that drives learning, language and attachment. Monitor your own screen use and avoid distracted parenting.
  • Try games, books, or music as distractions when toddlers are waiting, bored or upset. Kids can draw pictures and color at a restaurant, play “I spy” at the store and listen to music in the car. Even modern kids have been fine without screens for decades.
  • Evaluate your parenting style: if you are permissive as a parent, practice becoming more authoritative (but not authoritarian). If you can’t say no to a screaming toddler, how will you say no to a screaming teenager? Whether or not your child uses an electronic device is simply not up to them, and entirely up to you.

For more information from the AAP on the effects of media on this age group, look here. 

Media and Preschoolers (age 2-5)

As toddlers become preschoolers, the pull of electronics becomes even more powerful. But resist the power of the electronic babysitter. She will not teach them your values, and she is a glutton that dotes on kids but denies them meaningful nurturing, showing them flashy advertisements of things they can’t have, and training them to expect instant gratification from everything around them.

  • Kids this age should have no more than 30-60 minutes of screen time per day.
  • Supervise their screen time. They are too young to have free reign of a smartphone or tablet at this age. Don’t assume YouTube Kids is safe, there has been reports of very inappropriate content on it. It’s always best to watch with kids, not only to monitor what they are seeing, but also to stimulate discussion and learning. Again, this is technology facilitating human interaction.
  • Don’t rely on screens for teaching. Many apps and shows advertised as “educational” do not have any scientific backing. Baby Einstein will not make them smart, sharing books with them, playing with them and problem solving with toys and games will. The skills that best prepare kids for school, like task persistence, impulse control, and emotional regulation, are best taught through parent-child interaction and play.
  • When you need a break from all that interaction, send them out to play in the dirt where they can learn to tolerate challenges, engage their curiosity, and learn what their bodies can do.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

School-Aged Children (5-9)

At this age setting limits is still relatively straight-forward. You are the parent and you tell them how it is. There will be plenty of time for kids to learn to use their own decision making and listen to their inner voice etc when they are older. At this age you need to be their inner voice. Their inner voice is being tutored and mentored by yours; they will learn from the structure of the limits you set what is appropriate and what is not.

  • Kids this age should not have more than 2 hours of screen time per day.
  • Set very clear and specific limits for this age since they are often concrete thinkers who see the world in black and white. This includes when, how often, how long and for what.
  • Break up the total daily screen time into chunks to budget it throughout the day. For example, we allow our kids 30 min between 9am-noon, 30 min between noon-3pm, and another 30 min between 3-6pm. No screen time between 6pm and 9am. Kids seem to fall into a “screen coma” after about 30 min in which the passage of time becomes meaningless.
  • Feed them digital vegetables over digital candy- for example researching a focused topic on the internet, learning a skill on YouTube with supervision, video-chatting a relative or friend, creating movies, writing stories, editing photography, researching or documenting family history, or playing pro-social video games over violent video games, mindless internet/Youtube surfing, and hyper-texting.
  • This age is way too young for kids to have any social media, or be able to text their friends.
  • They should not have a device of their own or free unrestricted access to any other device. A low-tech Gizmo watch or similar is the most this age would ever need, and then only when they are not with you.
  • If they use a device, they should not “own” it, they should “use” it with parents permission. That way, what belongs to the parents can be monitored, restricted, and even taken away at any time if rules are not followed. They earn access by using it responsibly.
  • Consider making them earn screen time by doing their healthy behaviors first- since “growth comes in SPERTs” -which stands for Sleep, Play, Eating, Reading, and Talking- these things have to come before screen time.

Photo by Ben Weber on Unsplash

Preteens and Young Teens (ages 10-15)

Welcome to early/middle puberty, when kids suddenly start to know everything! This is often a stage of tension. Kids are figuring who they are, going through physical change, and dealing with the angst that comes from the upheaval of social relationships, not to mention newly raging hormones, and an incompletely developed dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (decision making and impulse control center of the brain). Add a smartphone to that, and what could possibly go wrong? In that context, parents should carefully consider when to give them what could potentially be their own personal gaming-junket/porn-machine/cyberbullying-portal/sexting-device/parent-muter/unlimited-friend-access comlink.

  • This age is too young for smartphones. Despite what your preteen child thinks, there are lots of other preteens out there that don’t have their own smartphone yet. I know- I see them in clinic and, to be honest, they are usually the ones that are the most well adjusted.
  • If you feel they need a phone, I suggest allowing the limited use of a family-owned, more closely supervised device that they check in and out. This access is dependent on appropriate digital behavior and following the limits spelled out in your Family Media Plan. Think of it as a “learner’s permit” phone.
  • In order to gain their cooperation and buy-in to the Family Media Plan, appeal to their vast inner wisdom by asking for their ideas on setting limits. They may come up with some decent ideas, and if you let them have some input they will feel better about complying.
  • Get their ideas on how they can keep their screen use from interfering with healthy behaviors, since “growth comes in SPERTs,” which stands for Sleep, Play, Eating, Reading, and Talking.
  • At the same time, they still need significant parental structure. You have the right to reserve some points as non-negotiable.
  • Maintain screen-free zones such as the bedroom and dinner table, and having screen-free times together such as eating or riding in the car. Screens must be kept outside the bedroom at night.
  • I recommend zero social media as a non-negotiable at this age, including Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Kik, etc. Kids this age don’t need to share their lives with the world. Let them share with friends through text, email, or even better, in person.
  • Cultivate kids’ budding social development by fostering fun in-person activities with their friends that develop social skills, new abilities and confidence. These activities provide a pull away from mindless screen use and towards fuller relationships and experiences.
  • Consider having a “phone basket” where friends can voluntarily surrender their phones when they are over. This shouldn’t be forced, but in my experience they are often relieved and realize they have more fun when everyone is not staring at their phones.
  • Use security features. In response to parent pressure, Apple has provided some improved basic safety features within iOS, such as locking out after maximum screen time and requiring parental approval for downloading apps. Unfortunately, they have also blocked additional security programs like FamilyTime , Circle or Qustodio or OurPact . You can read about programs to set safeguards on computers here.
  • Talk about personal cyber safety and privacy. Have frank discussions about sexting, pornography (including revenge porn). Sex traffickers have been known to recruit teens through “cyber grooming”. Be aware of the apps and games they are using that allow interaction with the broader world.
  • Talk about the real and known tendency for teens to become addicted to video games and help them to know and look for the signs and symptoms of gaming and internet addiction.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Mid-Late Teens (ages 16+)

While there is danger in over-connectedness, as demonstrated in a study that showed that “hyper-texters” and “hyper-social networkers” have higher rates of mental health problems, sleep problems, and social problems, there is also danger in the isolation that can come with excessive restrictions. The key to healthy management lies in helping teens learn self control, moderation and to use it for the right reasons- which is ultimately to foster healthy person to person connection.

Where the better approach for younger kids was defining black and white for them, with this age, it’s all about helping teens navigate the gray, and learn responsibility. Parents must find a balance between protection and freedom, and train teens to balance privacy and security with social connected-ness.

  • Decide whether to get them a smartphone, a flip-phone or no phone at all based on your child’s temperament, needs, and susceptibilities, and your family’s values. Allowing a teen to work and save money for a device can help them learn responsibility.
  • Following the rules of the Family Media Plan is required in order to access their device. Even if they pay for a device with their own money, access can still be monitored and revoked.
  • Distinguish between “digital candy” and “digital vegetables.” As kids have to do more of their homework online, it may not be realistic to set a 2 hour per day maximum time limit. But parents still have to set limits on the amount of time for entertainment and video games. A good rule is digital candy only comes after getting the digital vegetables- ie gaming only after the homework is done.
  • Screen-free zones and times should still be enforced. Kids need time to “be off” and not have the pressure of cyber performing constantly. They need practice managing FOMO. They need privacy. You wouldn’t allow your daughter’s boyfriend to spend the night with her in her bedroom, so why would you allow him to be there via her phone?
  • I still recommend no social media at this age. They simply don’t need it. Limit their social interaction to kids they know well and trust. Pornography is extremely easy to access on popular social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.
  • If you do allow social media, talk with them about how it becomes “anti-social media” when kids mindlessly scroll through memes and videos instead of using it to spark real-life conversation and connections. Talk with them about the distorted view of reality social media often presents and the dangers of social comparison. Talk about what it means to be a responsible “digital citizen” and how they can watch out for, avoid, and report cyber-bullying and cries for help from their friends. Remind them that colleges and employers have started to scan the internet for posts, pictures etc to learn more about their applicants. Remind them that the internet does not forget.

The importance of talk

It’s impossible to teach teens healthy behaviors through lecturing. The rules you set in a Family Media Plan will do the talking, but these rules should also grow out of an open and two-way discussion about the dangers of unhealthy media use.

The final and best advice I can give doesn’t actually have much to do with screens, or so it seems on the surface. It has more to do with root beer floats, running together, playing basketball on the driveway, rock climbing, hiking, making music or cooking, or the many other traditions and activities through which parents can create intimacy and connection with their kids while helping them gain skills and life experience.

But it’s not about the amazing experiences (or the money you put into them), it’s about the time you spend and the genuine interest you show. Kids need most of all to be seen, heard and understood. Building an authentic relationship makes a huge difference when having hard conversations about their media use (and every other issue that comes up during the teen years). Science has shown that feelings of isolation predispose humans to addiction, and screen addiction is no different. Feelings of connectedness and belonging buffer against it, in the setting of healthy structure and limits.

In the end, screens are not going anywhere. Just like the automobile, computer, and other new developments of yesteryear, screens today are becoming entrenched in our society- for better and for worse- and it will be increasingly essential for the health and well-being of our children (and ourselves) to learn and teach how to use these media in healthy, safe ways.