FAMILY DIGITAL WELLNESS GUIDE
Sections in this Guide
As their school years begin, children become physically stronger, more independent, and much more aware of themselves and their bodies.
School age children begin to form more complex relationships with peers.They may test boundaries, break rules, and try on new identities as they seek acceptance by the group. Friends become increasingly important for fun as well as for social development.
Physically, gradeschoolers undergo rapid periods of change; there is typically wide variation in height and weight between children of the same age. They need at least one hour of physical activity daily and the development of healthy eating and exercise habits is particularly important.
Gradeschool children begin to develop more mature attention spans, with the ability to focus on a single task for up to an hour by age 9. They can begin to make more complex decisions, reflect and problem-solve, and contribute meaningfully to their family and peer groups. Children at this age begin to develop self-regulation and self-awareness, understanding themselves in relation to others and managing their emotions.
At this age, children can begin to more productively use screen media. Interactive and engaged co-viewing with parents and peers can offer opportunities for relationship-building and learning. Developmentally optimal screen media can support improved academic performance, enriched knowledge, and increased literacy. Gradeschool children can develop meaningful relationships through video games and other interactive forms of online play.
We Recommend…For children 6-9, we recommend that parents and caregivers work with their child to determine the devices they use, the content they consume, and the people with whom they connect online. Screens should be used in moderation, with purpose, and in balance with time spent on a variety of non-screen activities.
Around ages 10-12 (also known as the “tween” years), puberty has begun for some, but not for others. With the increased hormones of early adolescence, children this age begin to experience notable physical changes with increased variability in height among kids of the same age. They are all excruciatingly self-conscious.
As their brains become more capable of logical and abstract thought, children this age enjoy practical tasks and problem-solving. In the United States, children often transition from elementary to middle school during the tween years. This transition brings new independence, expectations, supports, and structures that can differ markedly from what children experienced in elementary school.
As their brains have matured, tweens are able to tackle higher-level schoolwork just as they spend more energy on developing peer groups and social structures. Being perceived as popular and cool takes on great importance.
Social relationships continue to increase in importance as the child seeks greater independence, with non-romantic friendships often dominating. Children at this age may seek to dress, speak, and act like close peers or idolized celebrities.
While testing the limits of their independence, tweens need boundaries and the safety of their relationships with parents and other caregivers. At this age, children can begin to use media more independently, but still need the mentorship and oversight of adults.
We Recommend…For pre-adolescent “tweens,” we recommend that families work together to make decisions about using digital media that are in the best interest of each child’s balance and wellness. Parents should continue to monitor and guide their tweens’ use of screens and to set clear expectations and boundaries.
Best Practices for
Over 90% of school age kids report regular television watching, and over two thirds of parents report that their children use interactive media (such as smartphones, computers, gaming consoles, and tablets). Parents and caregivers report struggling with decisions about, oversight, and balance of their children’s media habits at this age. Interactive media have the potential to be both harmful and beneficial, and we want to support you in making the decisions and taking the actions that are best for your child and your family.
Make decisions regarding media alongside your child.
Children in their grade school and tween years are increasingly independent, with maturing ability to reason. They have opinions about what media devices and applications they want to use and are more likely to adhere to family expectations when they have had input on what those expectations are. When making decisions about which devices, applications, and programs they will watch and use, discuss with your child why they want to use these media, what your concerns are, and why you have those concerns. You can still make the decision that is in your child’s best interest, even if it’s not in line with their desires, but it’s important for them to feel heard and to understand why you have made the decision.
Set up accounts with your child.
Most apps, streaming services, and games require that users have accounts with specific permissions and preferences. Rather than setting up these accounts for your child, or allowing them to do it independently, we recommend setting them up together, so you can discuss the decisions to be made, what their preferences might be, and why you are requiring certain permissions and limits to be in place.
Have open access to your child’s online presence from the beginning.
When you start your child with a new device or platform, ask them to share their passwords with you. Talk with them about how their online behaviors can always be seen by others. You won’t need to check in on them constantly, but your child will learn that self-regulation is a necessary precondition and ongoing skill for operating in the online space.
Create a shared media use agreement.
School-aged children appreciate boundaries and fairness; they crave guided independence. Sitting down with your child to craft a media use agreement that addresses how everyone in the household uses television, tablets, computers, smartphones, game consoles, and other devices can set expectations and opportunities for using media independently and together. It’s important that children have input on the agreement and that everyone signs on.
Children this age will be highly aware of adult use patterns that seem hypocritical — for example, a parent who does not allow their child to play video games but spends hours doing so himself — and will challenge rules that they feel are unfair. By creating a media use agreement as your child begins to use devices and online applications, you are helping them to develop healthier, more balanced engagement with the digital world.
Learn more about how to craft a shared media use agreement here.
Game with your child.
Video games offer a bonding and shared coping opportunity for families of grade school and pre-adolescent children. Children love to be experts and to share their expertise with others, particularly when they can teach their parents something.
Ask your child what they are playing, what they like about it, and if you can play with them. You can ask that they teach you how to play and then ask questions along the way (“What should I do next?” “Which button do I push to make my next move?”). If they are playing social games, such as Roblox, Fortnite, or Minecraft, you can ask them to introduce you to their friends and to tell you more about them and how they met.
Action games, some of which can be violent, are among the most popular games with children. Research on the effects of playing these games on behavioral patterns is inconclusive, but does indicate at least short-term negative effects on aggression, empathy, and schoolwork. But research also indicates that action-oriented and open-world games can have positive effects on one’s attention and ability to learn.
We recommend that parents avoid violent games with their younger children and, if they decide to allow tweens to play these games, that they do so alongside their children, observe how they behave both when playing and after the game, talk about what is happening on the screen, and encourage a variety of different games.
Develop media literacy together.
As they get older, children begin to develop a deeper understanding of advertising, influencers, and disinformation, and what the producers of these campaigns are trying to get them to do or think. Co-engagement with media with your child offers an opportunity to build their skills in critically thinking about what they are seeing.
- When an advertisement comes on, you can ask your child what they think the ad is trying to get them to do, who they think created it, and what is attractive (or not) about it.
- When a persuasive message is shared, through a political campaign, a social media post, or even the news, you can ask your child who they believe created the message, what the producers want them to think or believe, why, and whether or not they agree with that message.
Address cyberbullying and other unhealthy behaviors.
With greater focus on peer relationships comes increased opportunities for bullying and exclusionary behaviors, like ostracism or shunning. School-aged children can be the victim (one who is bullied), the perpetrator (the one doing the bullying), the bystander (one watching and allowing the bullying to happen), or any combination at different times.
Kids who are bullied online are at greater risk than their peers for depression and anxiety. They may obsessively watch their device, hide it when a parent walks by, withdraw from friends and family, and/or become upset after being online or when asked to get offline.
You should talk with your child on a regular basis about what they are seeing and hearing both online and in person. You can ask them questions such as “I heard from a friend that there is a lot of cyberbullying at his child’s school. Does that happen at your school?” or “Have you heard of anyone being cyberbullied? What happened?”.
Report bullying when you hear about it. If your child was doing the bullying, even in retaliation, talk to them about it. Ask what was happening for them at this time, how it felt, how they think it felt for the victim, and what they think they could do to make the situation better for the victim.
Learn more about how to recognize and address cyberbullying here.
Support critical decision-making skills.
When they are online, even the children of the most involved parents will find themselves making choices quickly and often on their own. You can help them to make healthy choices by building their decision-making skills both on- and offline.
- Help them to make pro/con lists when faced with a decision. Ask them about what the positive benefits may be of a particular path and what the potential negative consequences could be of that same path. Help them to talk through their calculation of where the benefits may outweigh the negatives.
- Talk through your own decision-making processes. When faced with a decision, even about mundane things like what to wear, you can talk to your child about what you’re considering, why, and how you arrive at your final choice.
- Let them make safe mistakes. Video games are one venue to practice making— and rebounding from — mistakes without dangerous consequences. Ask your child what went wrong and what they might do differently next time. Older children may be able to talk about how they could apply this learning to other situations.
Model healthy and appropriate behavior.
Modeling healthy digital media use for your children will go a long way in helping them to develop good habits. While they may only hear 1% or what you say, they hear 100% of what you do.
- Even though they are not yet old enough for social media, you can model prosocial behavior for them through your own social media accounts. Follow positive accounts, share videos and posts with your child that demonstrate the best parts of human interaction (funny dog and cat videos are always a win), and avoid making posts that attack others.
- Put down your own devices, preferably in another room, during mealtimes, before bed, and while engaged in conversations. Try to avoid device use during family time, such as when you’re watching a movie together, playing a board game, or attending your child’s sporting event.
Engage in social media only when your child is ready.
Social media companies make their money by collecting personal data on their users, and there is a federal law that protects children under age 13 from such data collection. While kids 12 and under are technically not allowed on social media, research indicates that at least a third of pre-adolescent children are on sites such as TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
Social media offer opportunities for connection across geographic, cultural, and social divides, however they also can be filled with misinformation, hate, bullying, hyper-sexualization, and other potentially harmful influences. Parents may choose to support their children’s social media access when they feel their child can manage that environment. However, this should be done with close monitoring; making clear rules with the child; discussing how social media should and should not be used; and remaining open for questions, concerns, and non-judgmental help when the child needs it.
Help your child be skeptical of online images and videos.
Older children and tweens may be particularly vulnerable to being convinced by highly curated and altered images online. Co-view social media with your child and talk about what they are seeing and how it makes them feel. Older children may understand that what they see online has been created for an audience and is unlikely to reflect reality.
Be intentional about providing a smartphone.
Smartphones are not just telephones – they are powerful computers. On average, parents now provide a first smartphone to their child around age 10, often to ensure their child has the ability to easily communicate with the parents and stay safe when away from home. A smartphone offers children nearly unrestricted access to everyone and everything online, however, and should be treated as the powerful tool that it is.
- When you and your child are ready to get their first phone, sit down and ask your child what they want to do with the phone. Have a frank conversation about how, when, and where the phone can (and cannot) be used and what the consequences should be when expectations aren’t met. Maintain access to your child’s phone and apps. Set the expectation that you will randomly check in on their accounts and review their usage.
- Consider starting your child with a flip phone which has only voice and text capability. Present this as an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and good choices that can earn them a smartphone. Set expectations and milestones for how they can demonstrate they are ready for a smartphone.
- Resist the urge to check in with your child when they’re at school. School is your child’s opportunity to establish their independence. You also want to model responsible use and calling your child outside of emergencies will demonstrate an acceptance of phone use during school hours.
Talk openly about pornography and sexualized images.
Many children first encounter pornography online while they are still in elementary school. As they reach puberty, children naturally become more interested in exploring their own sexuality. Children may use the internet to search for sexual images and information in order to deepen their own understanding of sex and sexuality. Though it’s likely to make parents and kids uncomfortable, it’s important to begin having conversations about the objectification of women and inaccuracy of sexual behavior portrayed in pornography.
Provide young people with access without shame to accurate information about sexuality and sexual behavior and help them to understand the importance of a caring relationship to healthy, fulfilling sexual activity. Children who have received their own smartphone should talk about sexting (see Teens for more information).
Establish effective learning habits early.
Homework presents a great opportunity to build focused habits and self-regulation, even in the earliest years of schooling. Create a quiet, comfortable space with good lighting and no distractions for your child to do school work. Support your child’s effective study habits by setting expectations for use of screens during homework and study time – place phones and tablets in another room, turn off televisions, and set boundaries for how laptops are to be used if they are required for schoolwork.
Seek a balance between the online and natural worlds.
Healthy children require physical activity, creativity, and in-person interactions with peers and family members. Excessive screen media exposure has been correlated with obesity and long-term negative health outcomes. Encourage — and model — outdoor play, sports, art, and reading, as well as mindful, directed digital activities.