When Tech Is a Problem Child

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For the last six weeks, I’ve circulated (on social media!) 20 questions covering topics like homework, passwords, bedtime and punishments. I received responses from more than 60 families, and though the survey was unscientific, the answers have already changed how we manage tech at my house.

FIRST PHONES The vast majority of parents who responded gave their children their first phones in sixth or seventh grade, with a few holding out until high school. But those devices aren’t always cutting edge. Parents opted for “dumb phones,” “flip phones” or “hand-me-down phones” from siblings or grown-ups. They also turn off features, including Wi-Fi, Siri, even internet access.

FAMILY TIME Perhaps the biggest complaint about technology is that it eats into family time. So what techniques have parents used to take back that time?

First, tech-free dining. “No devices for all meals.” “No phones at the table, and that’s not just at our house. Siblings, nieces, nephews and my mom’s home have the same rule. No one gripes about it, they just do it.” “No devices at meals. No earbuds in the car.”

…Finally, when all else fails, many rely on the old parental standbys: threats, bribes and public humiliation. Threats: “Randomly I scream, ‘Take that phone out of your hand!’ It limits their use for the next five minutes.”

Bribes: “Parent-child date night. (Parents alternate taking one child out for a treat; fourth week is parents night out.)”

Public humiliation: “If a device is picked up during family time, we get to open texts, and my husband and I do dramatic text reading.”

 

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Living With a Teenage Data Hog

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I suggest the budgeting approach: Parents pay for a certain amount of data each month, the children track how much they’ve used, and then they pay for anything beyond that allotted amount.

It’s simple enough in theory. Carriers lets customers check to see how much data each person in a family plan has used so far during the month, and the privilege of having a phone should come with the responsibility of keeping track.

That approach does, however, require you to sit down with your teenager and identify the sources of data drain and perhaps set rules for when those apps ought to go off. The Times’s Wired Well columnist, Jennifer Jolly, lives with a data-draining teenager. She suggests turning off any features on a teen’s phone that drain data automatically in the background. Also, track the apps that use the most data and limit data hogs like Spotify or Snapchat to times when the teenager has Wi-Fi access. One additional hint: The more video an app records, transmits and receives, the higher the data bill is likely to be. Call your carrier or consult online forums if you need more help.

In an ideal world, this approach teaches patience, self-control and restraint. Your kids can always watch a video a little later over Wi-Fi, after all. And many messages – most, even – can wait a bit.

The FaceTime Babysitter

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One recent Saturday afternoon, when Rafi Fletcher was home alone with her nearly 1-year-old son, the Minneapolis mom wanted to get some work done on her women’s clothing start-up, Tibby & Finn.

So she called up her sister and asked if she wouldn’t mind watching, and playing with, her nephew for a little bit. Ms. Fletcher’s sister, who lives in San Francisco, happily obliged, and spent the next 30 minutes playing peek-a-boo, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and dancing with her nephew — all via FaceTime. Ms. Fletcher worked, while her son sat nearby on the couch interacting with his aunt via an iPad.

FaceTime is “the secret weapon” that allows relatives or friends to “virtually babysit and entertain the baby while you get things done in the same room,” Ms. Fletcher wrote on her blog back in September.

It turns out that Ms. Fletcher’s sister is far from the only virtual babysitter out there. In a world where many people live far from their relatives, clever parents of young children have long embraced video call helpers to get more things done around the house.

Let’s be clear. Parents, at least most of them, aren’t leaving their children home alone with virtual babysitters. Rather, they’re enlisting family and friends to watch the little ones via video for short periods of time, so they can be more productive around the house, focus on a task like cooking dinner or run out of the room for a few minutes. In other words, for those of us who don’t have relatives living close by who can be called upon for last-minute help, technology is a great fill-in.