10 Strategies for Managing Digital Devices

By Susan Bauerfeld, PhD and Chris Parrott, MSc, Post MSc Dipl, with Eve Kessler, Esq.

AT A GLANCE

The emergence of a screen culture challenges parents to rethink family goals and their approach to technology • With few guidelines to follow, many feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or defeated • Crafting a family-friendly policy begins by exploring the options between all-or-nothing extremes


With 95% of Americans owning mobile devices, it’s common to find children using technology for long stretches of time each day, often at the expense of engaging with the “real” world—talking face-to-face, playing outside, doing homework, etc.

For many parents, knowing how to manage their child’s screen use is challenging. Some resort to Command and Control, strict rules without discussion (“I am in charge. Do as I say”). Others throw up their hands in resignation. Still others alternate between the two extremes.

But none of those approaches is helpful for kids who want—and need—to travel in the digital world. This is especially true for kids with ADHD and learning disabilities who are most vulnerable to the tug of game-and-screen addictions. Following are some guidelines to help you help your kids develop life-long habits to manage technology responsibly.

1. Keep in mind your long-term parenting goals. Fundamental family values should be the basis for technology use. Align your strategies for managing tech with your overall parenting objectives, keeping in mind that rules are not meant to confine your children; they are there to help them learn. For example:

  • In a calm and playful manner, discuss creating a family mantra for tech use (“Think before you click”).
  • Describe examples of the ways others use tech that don’t match your values.
  • Acknowledge that your child might find your particular rules unfair (“You’re 12 and I understand that your friends have Snapchat and you don’t; that seems unfair”).
  • Explain the reasons behind the rules and the process you went through to reach the rules, so they don’t seem so arbitrary. 

2. Learn and teach your child the fundamentals of brain development and regulation. It is empowering for kids to understand how the different parts of the brain (thinking vs. survival brain/wizard vs. lizard brain affect their behavior and why they might be feeling and reacting in certain ways. Explain that ADHD brains, especially those awash in adolescent hormones, are overly sensitive to the dopamine rush that is tied to tech-based rewards, and that tech designers take advantage of that vulnerability. For example:

  • Discuss ways for your child to calm down and get back “in charge” after the reactive nature of the survival brain takes over. (“What would help you calm down? Would you like to jump on the trampoline or get together with friends?”)
  • Be compassionate about how difficult it must be for them to regulate their emotions after so much arousal and stimulation. (“It is frustrating to have to stop doing something that feels so good and transition to something less exciting”).
  • Acknowledge individual differences in skill development and approaches for getting wizard brain back.

3. Reframe the way you think about technology as a challenge, not as a threat. When you view technology as a challenge, the thinking part of your brain is accessible for learning and regulation. On the other hand, when you see technology as threatening or anxiety-provoking, your thinking brain is hijacked by fear and the survival part of your brain is activated instead. This Command and Control response interferes with your ability to communicate clearly, influence your kids, or help them learn the skills and strategies they need. Remember: If you are not in control of your own behavior, you really can’t ask—or teach—your kids to regulate theirs. 

4. Nurture your relationship with your child. Your relationship with your kids is your most effective tool for influencing their behavior. Be emotionally and physically available. For example:

  • Support your children
  • Celebrate their exploration
  • Delight in their journey

5. Invite your child to be part of the solution. Kids are more likely to follow rules you set if they are part of a calm and thoughtful conversation about how and why to implement those rules. Engaging in ongoing, connected conversations about tech management and self-regulation is an effective way to nurture the development of the thinking brain and teach the skills your child will need to manage tech in a healthy, resilient way. For example:

  • Use respectful language to communicate with your child.
  • Listen carefully and hear their feelings.
  • Avoid shame, blame and criticism.

6. Teach, build, and model skills, especially emotional regulation, impulse control, and critical thinking. Methods for teaching kids how to make good choices in managing tech are the same methods you used to teach them how to cross the street successfully. Teach skills actively, explicitly, and in an on-going manner. For example:

  • Talk about what you are doing and why you are doing it.
  • Model behavior that you want them to emulate; monitor your tech use when your children are around and how you use your free time. (Use your devices in a serviceable way; don’t pick up your phone while driving; keep devices away from the dinner table; and make time for tech-free fun with your family.)
  • Reinforce positive behavior.
  • Make room for struggles, developing autonomy, and mistakes.

7. Be mindful of your child’s age and stage. Make age-appropriate adjustments as your child matures and becomes more responsible. For example:

  • When kids are young, have a simple rule, such as: “No Internet use.”
  • During their early school years, go on the Internet with them, explore together, and guide them.
  • In tween and teen years, gradually transition to letting them use the Internet and discover more on their own.
  • For late teens and young adults, trust them to make good enough decisions so they can negotiate independently.

8. Acknowledge the value of games and screen-time, and take an interest in what they’re doing. For example:

  • Try playing electronic games with your kids.
  • Don’t diminish what they love; rather strive to balance tech use with other face-to-face options (“Hey, we’ve been sitting at the computer for awhile; why don’t we go for a walk?” “I know social media is fun; what are some other ways you like being with your friends?”).

9. Keep exposure, expectations, and demands developmentally realistic and reasonable. Games and social media are designed with the explicit purpose of capturing the attention of the survival part of the brain. It is the thinking part of the brain, however, that is required to manage tech and impulse control effectively. Remember that wizard-brain is the last part of the brain to develop, continuing to mature into the mid-20s for neurotypical kids and often years longer for kids with ADHD and LD.

10. Teach respect and care for the body. Sleep, nutrition and exercise are necessary for a healthy brain and body, and to help make challenges more manageable. Give these physical care requirements as much priority as you give school and study habits. For example:

  • Explore and discuss the many needs of the body that cannot be met in the digital world (“What does your body need that makes you feel good that you can’t do with your phone?”).
  • Because sleep is essential for mental health and learning, consider making the bedroom a tech-free zone.

This article is based on Managing the Impact and Influence of Digital Devices and Content: What to do, how to do it and why it’s important, a presentation by Susan Bauerfeld, and Chris Parrott. Eve Kessler, a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET Wilton and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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