Having "The Talk" With Kids about Technology
Seven conversations about technology you should consider having with your children
Source: Pexels/ Andrea Piacquadio
In today’s newsletter, I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Jacqueline Nesi. Dr. Nesi is a psychologist, researcher, and an expert on the impact of technology on children’s mental health and how parents can help. In our interview, we discuss how parents should talk to their children about technology and the specific conversations they might want to have. If you are limited on time, scroll down to the bottom for the “translation” of our interview which provides a brief summary including seven specific conversations you can have with your child about technology. If you have time, read or listen to the full interview below:
Dr. Cara Goodwin: Welcome to The Parenting translator newsletter! I'm Dr. Cara Goodwin and I'm so excited because today I'm here with Dr. Jackie Nesi. Dr. Jackie and I actually go way back. We went to graduate school together and I picked her up at the airport when she was interviewing for our Ph.D. program. We have stayed in touch and we are in similar spheres now. So Dr. Jackie Nesi, could you please introduce yourself and tell us who you are and what you do?
Dr. Jacqueline Nesi: Thanks so much for having me, Cara. Yes, I have very fond memories of that drive from the airport, now many, many years ago! So, I’m Dr. Jacqueline Nesi, and I go by Jackie. I'm a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University in the Department of Psychiatry. I also write a weekly newsletter called Techno Sapiens, and I co-founded a company called Tech Without Stress, which provides online resources and courses to help parents feel more confident raising kids in the digital age.
Dr. Goodwin: I would highly recommend her newsletter, Techno Sapiens, which is available on Substack, if you are a parent that is at all interested in how your children and yourselves interact with technology. It really has incredible research-backed information.
Today, I would love to talk about something that I'm thinking about a lot as a parent myself and that is having the “talk” about technology with our kids. I think a lot of us parents now know that we should have the “sex talk” with our kids and, even more so, a series of ongoing conversations. It’s occurred to me recently that I should be having these kinds of ongoing conversations with my kids about technology. I’m not thinking so much about that moment when you give your child their first phone (which is a small part of this) but more generally, when do you start talking about technology with your kids? How do you do it? And how do we prepare our kids for a world of technology more generally?
So the first questions I would like to ask are: When do you start talking to your kids about technology? At what age or does it depend on their developmental level? And how do you start talking about this with young children in a way that they can understand?
Dr. Jackie: This is such a tricky topic. Like so many things with technology, it's challenging because we didn't really grow up needing to have these conversations with our parents. Because this is so new, we're all just learning how to navigate it now. But from the time our kids are really young—from the time that they're babies—they're going to be seeing technology everywhere. They're going to be seeing us on our phones. They're going to be seeing TVs and laptops. It's everywhere for them. And they're going to be wondering about it. That means it’s a good idea to start having these conversations early.
The first way to approach this topic is to discuss our own technology use, because before our kids start using technology themselves, they're going to be seeing us on our phones and devices. You can start by just narrating what's happening– you can talk about what you're using your phone for, some of the good things about technology, and some of the challenges that come up. I think that's a great way to start having these conversations.
Dr. Goodwin: I love that. So not presenting technology as “all bad,” but explaining the pros and the cons. I also love the idea of narrating what you're doing. I think that I can see that being really helpful for kids.
So I think a question a lot of parents have is about the safety of kids online. With young kids, you're usually always with them when they're using technology. But then all of a sudden, you need to put the baby down for a nap and you need the toddler to be entertained. So you leave them with an iPad while you go upstairs. Then you start thinking about it and think, “They’re on the iPad unsupervised so they can really do anything.” When do you start talking about safety? How do you discuss this topic without scaring children and without presenting ideas that are not developmentally appropriate for them?
Dr. Nesi: That’s a great question. I do think that conversations about safety are important to start having from the beginning. You’re right–it happens very fast that they are suddenly using technology out of our immediate view! The most important thing we want to convey when it comes to online safety is that if our kids see anything that makes them uncomfortable, confused, or upset, they can always come to us, and we will help them through it.
So, there's a few parts to that.
First, we want to tell them that there are things on the Internet that they might come across that aren't meant for kids.
Second, we want to convey that if they do come across anything that doesn’t seem appropriate, they should feel comfortable coming to us, and they won't be in trouble. Sometimes kids are nervous that they’ve done something wrong when they come across something they shouldn’t have–we want to be really clear that when they tell us about it, they won’t be in trouble. We want to be a resource for them, and we want to help them think through anything that they might have come across.
Finally, if they do ever come across something that makes them uncomfortable, and they come to talk to us about it, we want to try to stay as calm as possible. Of course, the natural instinct in a situation like this is to panic a little bit! But as much as we can, we want to try to make sure the conversation does not feel punitive, so that they’ll come talk to you again about any issues in the future. You can try to start with something like: “Thank you so much for coming to me to talk about this. I'm really glad that we're having the chance to talk about it.” That just helps them to know that it's okay to bring these things up to you, you’re not going to punish them, you're not going to freak out. Then, you can think about a conversation later that day or the next day, where there might be new rules or limits you put in place to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
Dr. Goodwin: Are there any apps that you recommend on devices for parental control or do you just suggest doing it through the settings of your device?
Dr. Nesi: There are some parental control apps out there. One of the most popular, especially for slightly older kids, is called Bark. It monitors some of the content your child is accessing, the messages they’re sending and posting, and alerts you of any concerns. Outside of external apps like Bark, there are a few other ways to set up parental controls. One is through the settings on the phone or tablet itself, or, similarly, through linking a child’s phone or tablet to your own device through features like Family Sharing (on iPhone/iPad) and Family Link (on Android). Another is through the apps themselves–on YouTube, for example, you can set up parental controls to block certain content or set time limits. And finally, you can set up filters (like Circle) on the WiFi in your house, which would also allow you to set time limits or block inappropriate websites.
Dr. Goodwin: Okay, that's very helpful. My next question is should we, from a young age, be talking about the addictive nature of screen time? I know that a lot of us even as parents struggle with how addictive these devices are. So should we talk about that with our kids? Is this something we should be preparing them for?
Dr. Nesi: Absolutely, this can all be part of a larger conversation about the risks and benefits of technology. So, we can talk about how technology is great for so many reasons, but that sometimes it's really tricky to use our screens in ways that feel good to us, and in ways where they’re not getting in the way of other stuff we want to do. It's important to normalize that it can be really hard to put down our devices, both for kids and adults. You might even try using an analogy for your kids, like “Cookies are really delicious and fun to eat, but if we eat 100 of them, we're probably going to feel sick. It can be hard to stop sometimes.” You can convey that as a parent, part of your job is to help them practice putting their screen down when it’s time to do that, even though it can be really tricky.
This is something you can model as well. If you do find that you get distracted on your phone–as we all do sometimes–you can say something like, “I'm sorry that I got distracted. Sometimes it's hard to put my phone down. But I know it's not polite to use my phone when other people are trying to talk to me.”
Dr. Goodwin: Yes, I love that. That's a great point. So what about introducing new kinds of technology? I'm guessing that we just don't want to give our kids their own phone or own iPad one day and they just have unlimited access? So how do we ease our kids into this? How do we make this a gradual learning process rather than one day they just have full access?
Dr. Nesi: This is going to depend a little bit on the type of technology–for example, getting a phone will be a whole separate conversation–but in general, you do want exposure to new technologies to be a gradual process. This way, kids can be learning along the way, with safeguards in place, before they have access to everything that screens have to offer.
One way to do this is to start by having a shared, family device–like a family tablet–that kids can use at certain times and with certain rules in place. This makes it a bit easier to monitor, and forces some limits because sharing is required!
Then, when kids do get their own device, you want to have lots of conversation in advance. (And if they already have a device, that’s okay! It’s definitely not too late to have these conversations).
First, provide them with the rationale for why you think they're ready for the device–maybe they’ve been showing that they’re responsible by following other rules you’ve set, or by helping out around the house.
Second, you want to discuss expectations for what they’re allowed to do with the device. Why are they getting this device? What should they use it for? When are they allowed to use it?
Third, when your child gets a new device, you can try to frame it as an experiment: “We're going to try out this new device. Let's see how this goes for the next week or two. If it's not working, we can reevaluate.” This way, the decision does not feel quite as permanent.
Dr. Goodwin: Yes, I love that. So when you think, “Whoa, they actually weren't ready for their own phone,” you can just see it as a failed experiment.
I know this has happened to me before and I would guess it's happened to other parents— where you're letting your child do something and then you decide that you actually don’t feel comfortable with it. For example, you’re letting your child play games on your phone while you're waiting for something and then you decide that you feel like they actually need to just sit there and be bored. Another really common example is when your kids are having too much screen time and you decide to cut back.
How do we scale back on technology? How do you do that with children? I think a lot of us feel like we're stuck in these patterns. How do we explain to them when we want to make a change?
Dr. Nesi: It is so easy for this to happen! We never really know how a new technology will play out with our kids until they actually start using it, even with some clear rules in place. We can (and should!) always be re-evaluating how technology is working in our families, and making sure that it’s working for everyone–adults and kids.
If there are things we need to change, scale back on, or take away, the time to set that new expectation is probably not at the moment when they're requesting the device. Instead, we want to have this conversation at a time that’s more neutral, when everyone is calm and more open to discussion. During that conversation, you can always bring it back to your family's values around technology. So you can say: “I know it's really fun to do [XYZ] on mom’s phone, but it's really important in our family that our screens don't get in the way of other stuff we want to do, like spending time together.” Then, try to explain the new plan, and really be specific with what it is going to look like.
Dr. Goodwin: Yes that makes a lot of sense. So the final thing I really want to get into is our own technology use as parents. How do we talk to kids about our own technology use? Should we be telling them what we're doing on our phones? I worry that kids see us on our phones and they feel like they're being ignored or that they're not important. However, we could be sending a really important email to their teacher or something that is part of our job as a parent.
Dr. Nesi: Yes, this is so important. This comes back to this idea of modeling–how do we model for our kids the types of technology use we want to see from them? Obviously, there are going to be times when we're using our devices more than we want to around them, and I think that's okay.
But when this starts to be more extreme–when our devices start to really get in the way of our interactions with our kids–this is something for us to be aware of. There’s actually a name for this in psychology, “technoference,” which just refers to the experience of technology interfering with our relationships. And we know that technoference can have negative implications for our children’s well-being.
At the same time, there are, of course, so many things that we're doing with technology that are unavoidable! Like you said, if we're emailing their teachers or if we’re responding to an important work email— there are times when we need to be using our devices at home. In these situations, it can make sense to try to narrate that for our kids. Explain to them what you're doing on your phone, and why. This can help kids understand that the phone or other technology serves as this important tool. It's not always a toy or entertainment. It provides these important functions for us as adults, and it will for them, too, as they get older. I think that's important to communicate to them.
Dr. Goodwin: Yes definitely. I can see the importance of narrating to your kids what you're doing. In my own experience, it also helps me to not become distracted on my phone. So if I always narrate what I'm doing on my phone, I would say “I’m sending an email to your teacher” or “I'm texting your friend’s mom, so we can figure out if they can still do a playdate.” However, if I’m scrolling Instagram, I might hesitate to narrate that and would then help manage my own screen use in front of my kids.
Dr. Nesi: Yes! Since becoming a parent, I've definitely become much more aware of my own technology use, and when it’s really necessary or not.
Dr. Goodwin: What about posting our kids’ pictures on social media? Should we ask their consent before doing that? Should we ask their consent before even sending pictures to our friends or to our family?
Dr. Nesi: This is such a challenging issue. Like so many parenting decisions, I don't think there's one right answer here–people have to do what they feel comfortable with, and what feels right for their family.
I personally think that when kids are really young, it may make less sense to ask them their permission before posting–just because they're not really able to understand it in the first place. They don’t know what it means to consent to that. At the same time, you could argue that even if they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, it still might be helpful to model the behavior of asking for permission before posting.
But as they start to get a little older and more aware of what social media is, I do think it makes sense to ask their permission before you post a picture of them or a story about them, or whatever it might be. It sets a good example for what you'd want them to do when they start posting on social media, which is being cautious and aware of how other people might feel about the things you post.
Dr. Goodwin: Yes, definitely. This has been so interesting and so helpful. I've learned so much as a parent and I think it'll be really helpful for other parents. So please tell us again, where we can find you and find out more information about kids and technology?
Dr. Nesi: Thanks so much for having me! You can find me on my newsletter Techno Sapiens, where I write about technology, psychology, and parenting, right here on Substack. You can also find my company Tech Without Stress on our brand new (!) Instagram page (@techwithoutstress) and website.
Dr. Goodwin: These resources are so needed. Thank you again. This has been wonderful.
Parents should start talking to their children about technology as soon as they understand some of the basics or as early as possible. In particular, it may be helpful to have the following conversations:
Talk about your own technology use: Narrate what you are doing on devices and why. Explain and apologize when you get distracted by technology. For example, “I'm sorry that I got distracted. Sometimes it's hard to put my phone down. But I know it's not polite to use my phone when other people are trying to talk to me.”
Talk about the pros and cons of technology: Explain the benefits of technology as well as some of the risks. Explain that technology provides important functions for adults and for kids. It’s not all entertainment and it’s not all “bad.”
Talk about safety: Explain that they can always come to you if they see anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, confused, or upset, and they won’t be in trouble. If they do come to you, make sure you stay calm and do not scold or punish them. Later, you can have a discussion about how the rules and limits might change to keep them safe.
Talk about the addictive nature of technology: Normalize that it can be hard to put down technology and it can get in the way of other things we want to do. For example, "It can be hard to stop sometimes. So, as a parent, part of my job is to help you practice putting your screen down when it's time to do that, even though it can be really tricky.”
Talk about expectations when introducing new technology: When giving children their first phone, iPad, or other device, or when allowing them access to a new app, explain the expectations for the device or app and the rules and limits. Frame it as an experiment so you can limit or take away the device or app if they don’t seem ready or break the rules. For example, “So we're going try this out new device. Let's see how this goes for the next week or two. If it's not working, we can reevaluate.”
Talk about scaling back on technology: Explain that we are always reevaluating how technology is working in our families and scaling back when needed (“I know it's really fun to do [XYZ] on my phone but it's really important in our family that our screens don't get in the way of other stuff we want to do like spending time together”)
Talk about consent and how to treat others online: As your children get older, start talking about asking others’ consent before posting online and model this for them by asking their consent. Ask them to start thinking about how others might feel about anything they do online.
Dr. Jacqueline Nesi is a clinical psychologist and professor at Brown University, and the author of the popular weekly newsletter Techno Sapiens, about technology, psychology, and parenting. Her work focuses on the role of technology in kids’ relationships and mental health, and on how parents can help. She is also the co-founder of Tech Without Stress (@techwithoutstress), a company that provides online resources and courses so parents can feel confident raising healthy, happy kids in the digital age.