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Teaching children digital literacy is better than limiting screen time

Strict limiting screen time limits, according to studies, can backfire. Instead, teach kids how to deal with the craziness online.

Parents are rightly concerned about what screens are doing to their children in an age of fake news, racy content, online bullying, and increasing social isolation. Many people answer by limiting their screen time. However, research suggests that you should think twice before taking this approach.

According to one recent report, children whose parents limit their screen time perform worse in college. The explanation for this isn’t entirely clear from the report, but as one study co-author explained to Inc.com, it’s possibly because kids who have their parents babysit their software use at home go off the rails when they don’t.

So, if limiting screen time is likely to backfire, what works is better? “Encouraging your children to think critically about the media they’re consuming is far more important than playing screen-time babysitter,” according to a recent Wired post.

It’s best to teach your children how to use their own technology and deal with the craziness they’re bound to experience online than to try to do it for them. But, as any parent knows, children can be stubborn (or, depending on their age, secretive) about their screens, so how do you teach digital literacy? Wired relies on extensive analysis to provide comprehensive recommendations, but here are a few general guidelines:

1. Start at a young age.

Small children have difficulty distinguishing between marketing and reality, but that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t begin assisting them with this distinction as early as preschool. “Play the ‘What are they trying to sell?’ game with kids this age,” the article suggests. “During a commercial break, see who in the family can guess what the ad is trying to sell first.”

2. Make the most of teachable moments.

A stranger online texting your tween can be frightening. It can also be a good time to start a conversation about privacy and who has access to our personal information. If such an opportunity does not present itself, consider developing one. “The next time you take a picture together at the park or a restaurant, ask your child if it’s okay to share it on social media.Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss who can see the picture and show them your privacy settings,” Wired writes.

3. Follow your child’s social media account.

Do it anyway if they complain.

black iphone 4 on brown wooden table

4. Use “lateral reading” to fight false news.

According to studies, children (and adults) are terrible at distinguishing between truth and lies on the internet. Teach your teen lateral reading to help them learn this difficult yet a necessary ability. “When you come across a piece of information, you try to see if you can corroborate it with another source,” Wired explains. “Parents should ideally allow their children to verify facts through reputable news sources.”

5. Create a digital literacy model

You can’t offer something you don’t have, so make sure you take the advice you’re giving. Keep up with what’s going on online and demonstrate critical thought, even though it means giving up leverage and fielding more questions. According to Wired, “the totalitarian ‘Because I said so’ refrain of old has been related to lower academic performance and weak emotional control.”

Of course, following this advice is not easy. On the internet, it’s like the Wild West. But, since our tech-enabled lives are unlikely to become any less complicated, we must prepare our children to deal with uncertainty, deception, and even outright exploitation. Even though it is much more exhausting than simply limiting screen time.

Virtu Digital