Kids & Tech: A Parent Coach's Perspective

May 01, 2024

Kids & Tech: A Parent Coach's Perspective

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and (as always) the mental health of kids and teens is top-of-mind. One of the biggest obstacles for this population is navigating the evolving relationship with technology and screens. The rapid advancement of technology has been described by experts as if “the steam engine, electricity, and the internet all happened at the same time.” We know that for kids and teens, excessive screen time has negative effects on development, and is linked to increased mental health problems.

This can all feel overwhelming for many parents. We sought the wisdom of Cari Newman, Parent Coach with the Horwitz-Zusman Child & Family Center. A former educator of 26 years and mom to teens, Cari empathizes with the issues parents are facing. She has a deep understanding of the arguments and frustration that come with enforcing screen time rules, but stands by the importance of doing so. We spoke about building a healthy relationship with technology, backtracking when you need to, and how a simple sticky note might just be the key to managing screen time.

Everything in Moderation

“Technology can feel out of control, and I understand families who want to just shut it down and avoid it entirely,” says Cari. “That might feel manageable when your child is very young, but it works less well when your child is 16. In fact, if the first time your child is experiencing any freedom online is when they’re a teen, it may set them up for potentially risky behavior. It’s just like with anything else- you give your baby a certain amount of room, you give your toddler a little more, and as their skills grow their safe area widens. It’s the same thing with tech; if your child has trouble logging off when screen time is over, that shows they may need to cut back-and balance it with other activities.”

“I think like most things, everything in moderation,” she explains. “If you compare technology to sugar, it’s hard to have a rule like “no sugar” when we live in a world with celebrations of all kinds. But that doesn’t mean you eat cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner, either. Screen time isn’t a basic need like food, water and shelter, but many families unintentionally slip into that mindset.”

“It’s important from a very early age to have agreements in place with children. We can come to a family agreement where we write down, ‘We watch two shows a day,’ and then give the child the choice as much as you can, within reason, of when to watch those two shows. Whenever possible, make sure the agreement is the same on weekdays and weekends; young kids can’t always differentiate. They don’t understand why they can watch hours of TV on the weekend, but only one hour during the week. Every time a rule is broken, a new rule is made.”

“As kids grow older, agreements about balance become important. You might establish ‘have-to’s’, like exercising, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and homework; if those things get done, you earn your screen time.”

“Truly, children want as much as they can get. Just like sugar, they’re not going to be happy to talk about how you’re going to limit their candy and cookies and ice cream, and they’re going to say, ‘No, I want it all.’ That’s where you as a parent can practice being ok with your child’s discomfort because you know it’s for their long-term health and well-being.”

Modeling a Healthy Relationship

Parental modeling of a healthy relationship with technology is “huge,” says Cari. “Parents who are on their devices constantly — and I have to make a really big effort with this personally — are teaching their children how to interact with their tech. TV, gaming, & devices can all become very stimulating and hard to fight back against. The mental health impact of this constant stream of input is that people don’t have any quiet in their body or their mind, and then they don’t know what to do with the quiet. When you don’t know what to do with the quiet, you begin to view it as distressing.”

While Cari is hesitant to generalize rules because every situation is different, there are two that she would recommend to any family. “We should know what our kids are doing online, and that means knowing their logins and checking in on their device usage,” she says. Additionally, until kids have shown consistent responsible use over a number of years, all device usage should happen “In a common area, not a bedroom,” she says. “My kids didn’t love this rule when they were younger, but it kept them safe.”

How to Backtrack

If you mess up, remember that “Every day is an opportunity to clean up from the day before,” reassures Cari. “If you give your child a peanut and they have an allergic reaction to it, you’re not going to say, ‘Ooh well, I already gave you peanuts, let’s just keep going.’ You’d say, ‘Uh oh, that didn’t work, lets regroup and cut down on this or avoid this.’”

“We can introduce this regrouping to kids by saying, ‘Hey, we have a problem in our house. Collectively, we spend a lot of time on our devices, and I’ve heard research about how detrimental that is. So as a family, we’re going to talk about how we’re going to solve this.’ It’s important as a parent to own your role in this and be honest about where you’ve messed up. When I think my child is spending too much time on his device, the first thing I do is ask, ‘What am I modeling?’ Often, it’s not great,” she says.

It's important to also remember that for teenagers, “Their phone is their lifeline,” says Cari. “It’s their connection to the rest of the world, to their friends; taking that away is going to feel like removing an oxygen mask,” says Cari. “It’s important to approach limits from a problem-solving perspective rather than blaming/shaming.”

Whether you have teens or toddlers, Cari reiterates the importance of the written agreement. “It’s crucial, because then when they step out of bounds you have a document to point to. Mine isn’t fancy; it’s a yellow sticky note on my bulletin board. No agreement is ever final, it’s just the latest iteration because tech changes and kids change. But that sticky note has saved many an argument.”

There’s no handbook to parenting, but there can be a guide. To schedule an appointment with Cari, reach out at

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