Commentary: Screen time and your child’s digital health

By Joey Melvin

With the closure of schools across the United States, students will have some unexpected free time for weeks to come.  Thousands of parents are now grappling with the question of how that time should be best filled.

I’m a School Resource Officer (SRO), not a physician, but understanding the development of the brain of a child is integral for anyone dedicated to working with children. 

The brain of a child does not become fully developed until their mid-20’s. In simple terms, the brain is divided into functions for thinking and feeling. Guess which part develops last? Yep, the thinking part of the brain is the last to develop, leaving us to deal with the “feeling” part until then.

Social media safety

I begin this opinion with this fact to segue into the topic of digital citizenship and your child’s safety online. Social media conflict and safety-related issues have become a daily part of a School Resource Officer’s day. Each morning, SRO’s are often contacted by administrators, counselors, students, and their parents, to report harassing, threatening, and other concerning behaviors online. Cyber harassment, threats amongst students, sexting, even though technically occurring outside the school walls, often falls in the laps of our school administrators.  SRO’s are resources for both investigation of these reports and mitigation of the potential outfalls.

Joey Melvin

Schools do a good job in being proactive by encouraging positive online interactions and continually reminding students of the consequences of engaging in inappropriate online behaviors.  However, schools and law enforcement typically encounter two significant hurdles when dealing with student online behaviors.

The first hurdle is that the majority of our population has the tools which may allow children access that will enable them to engage in inappropriate and dangerous online behaviors. Children have been given cell phones, iPads, and access to computers and their respective applications.

Even devices that parents think are obsolete or of no value, often only need a wifi connection to open up potentially dangerous access channels. Old cell phones or iPads can simply be taken to McDonald’s, the local library, or other commercial venues that provide public with full and free access to wifi.

The second hurdle is one that’s harder to control: a child’s brain.

It is the combination of a child’s heavy dependence on the “feeling” part of their brain, coupled with peer pressure and these tempting tools, which become catalysts for dangerous online activity.

Even as adults, we’ve likely had times we were upset and almost sent that inappropriate reply email or text. We (hopefully) didn’t send that reply because the thinking part of our brain was functioning, and the idea of consequences likely stopped our actions. Because their brains aren’t fully developed, our children don’t have the benefit of that braking system.

Hold the phone

By no means am I suggesting the biology of a child’s brain removes responsibility or becomes an excuse, but it is a factor that should be taken into account.

My plea to parents is this; you cannot control the formation of your child’s brain, but you can manage your child’s ability to possess what is a very powerful access tool.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by parents, “I can’t take their phone.” 

I disagree.  

With rare exceptions, parents purchase and pay the bills on those phones, and are the owners. Without the unbelievable access that the phone provides, your child could not receive messages encouraging them to fight, send or receive inappropriate pictures, post personal information, respond to online predators or learn that new Tik Toc dance.

Digital guidance

Social media is not completely bad, and it serves as an excellent tool for many children and adults. But, to keep your child safe, please become proactive in your responsibility when placing the access tool for social media and online venues into your child’s hands.

Below are some suggestions on digital guidance for parents provided by Digital Futures Initiative:

Set a good example – Most of us are on our phones or computers, checking email, social media, etc. Let your kids see your face and not the back of a device.

Engage your children – Teach them the nuances of communicating in person by communicating in person. They need the practice. The alternative is they will turn to the internet for help or to process what is going on and the internet is full of information, but it doesn’t filter the information according to your values like you do.

Treat social media and devices like you would alcohol – Go as long as you can without it, or as if you would driving . Would you give your kid the keys to your car without first teaching them to drive?

  • Keep tech “down times” – No devices during meals, conversations or certainly bedtimes!
  • Limit tech usage – Even for teenagers. Two hours for teens and one hour for pre-teens per day. Encourage other activities that result in more experiences building skills and/or self-confidence.

• Put parental controls on devices at least until they graduate high school.

Stay engaged with their online lives. Know their online friends, their experiences, etc.

More information and resources for parents can be found at dfinow.org

Joey Melvin is an instructor for the National Association of School Resource Officers and a detective/school resource officer with the Georgetown Police Department in Delaware. He has spent more than 18 years in law enforcement and was formerly deputy director of Delaware’s Comprehensive School Safety Plan.