Keep the computer in a public place. This practice creates natural limits on use. It allows for some degree of privacy while making sure you are close enough to know what's going on. Although it becomes more challenging as kids get older, no elementary-school child needs a laptop in her room. If you approach your child while she is online and she minimizes the screen, she may be doing something inappropriate. You are absolutely entitled to ask her to show you the screen.
There are additional benefits to having the computer in a public part of your home: you get to see your kids. "When we start putting computers and TVs in their rooms," says Lori Getz, the Internet safety expert, "that's where they go and we lose them."
Create a cell phone parking area. Establish a place in your home where all cell phones are parked and charged (and, if possible, silenced) during preset times. It might be for a prescribed homework period, during dinner, or both. Although this practice can feel difficult at first, most people find it a relief to let go of their phones for certain periods. With fewer external stimuli, family members are free to focus on each other and on important tasks.
Prohibit sleeping with phones. There is no good reason why a girl should be sleeping with her phone. Girls rest their phones under the pillows or on their chests so they can wake up if someone texts. If drama is afoot, late-night texts quickly become irrational and explosive. Plus, girls lose valuable hours of sleep. Let your daughter know her phone gets parked before she goes to bed (if she can't bear the idea of her phone sleeping alone downstairs, you may need to snuggle with it under your pillow, as some parents have done). If you are not sure what your daughter does with her phone at night, the answer is only as far away as your latest phone bill. A record of each number she texts and the time it was sent is easily accessible. There is one exception to this: New applications exist that allow users to text without owning a phone. There is no record of these texts. If your daughter has a device that can download "apps," you will need to check if she owns one with this new texting capability.
Limit gadgets at meals. It is a common sight at restaurants: adults talking while two children sit lost in their gadgets. Waiting for your meal can be boring, but it can also be a time for families to catch up and connect. The ability to "turn off" reality and seek refuge in a device prohibits kids from developing the ability to manage impatience, discomfort, or other difficult emotions. Being able to make small talk is also a vital skill that is stunted in children who are not expected to do it. If families give kids permission to log out of conversations, it becomes part of a child's repertoire of manners and etiquette in the world.
Make family meals, at home or out, a sacred time uninterrupted by technology. Do not respond to phones or computers. As an alternative to using gadgets at the table, try going around the table and asking each family member to name their highs and lows for the day. That is, each person should briefly describe the best and worst part of his or her day. You can do it as a nightly ritual.
Limit social media during homework. In 2010 a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that half of students ages eight to eighteen use the Internet, watch TV, or use some other form of media either most or some of the time while they do homework. With the constant disruption of a vibrating phone or blinking chat window, kids do not develop habits to help them sustain longer periods of work, focus, and thought. Scientists call this study time "rich learning," the kind of knowledge required for higher-order thinking tasks like math or reading. With social media at play during homework, kids end up multitasking, or switching rapidly between different tasks.
The problem is that multitasking does not allow for rich learning, and it also results in epic amounts of distraction. Allison Miller, a high-school freshman who sends and receives twenty-seven thousand texts every month, told the New York Times about her struggle to balance her social and academic lives. "I'll be reading a book for homework and I'll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message,
and then twenty minutes later realize, 'Oh, I forgot to do my homework.'"
Researchers at Duke found that when adults do not supervise computer use, children choose playing over homework. In 2010 only three out of ten young people had rules limiting technology use. They used media about three hours less than peers with no rules. Kids need parents to set these limits. Although teens may rely more on the Internet to do some homework, there are no assignments, as far as I know, that require a text message. During homework hours, have your kids park the phone with prescribed times for use (a fifteen-minute texting break every forty-five minutes, for example). This practice will allow your child to work with much less distraction.
Lori Getz suggests asking kids to try homework one night while using social media, then the next night without it. After the two nights, talk with your daughter about the difference in learning, efficiency, and effectiveness she experienced. As you consider implementing these changes in your home, keep in mind that habits take time to change. There will almost always be resistance ("I won't know what's going on," "I can concentrate better if I can text"). After the initial storm of indignation, many girls actually find the permission to unplug a relief. Alternatively, the solitude and quiet of homework time may be one of those things they thank you for when they are adults.
Excerpted from Odd Girl Out, Revised and Updated, Copyright 2011 by Rachel Simmons. Reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.