Text By C. Scott Wyatt
rusting our daughters matters to my wife and me. Susan and I want the girls to feel confident and secure that we will believe what they tell us.
Before we had children, I was “Dr. Wyatt,” an educational technology expert with knowledge supported by extensive research and some published papers on teaching with computers. What I lacked was actual parenting experience.
I completed my dissertation defense the month after Apple introduced the iPad. Chromebooks, much less affordable notebook computers, didn’t exist. Few students had phones at the time and, if they did, the Motorola Razr flip phone was a status symbol.
Research recommended designing school computer labs with computers around the outer edge of class so that teachers could see every screen. When I spoke to groups, I told parents to place the family computer where an adult could see the screen occasionally. The mere chance that an adult might be watching was enough to nudge stud-ents to at least try to stay on task.
Fast-forward 10 years.
Tablet carts allowed schools to eliminate dedicated labs. Roll in the iPad or Surface Pro cart and hand out the tablets. Unfortunately, teenagers master bypassing school firewalls, sharing tips on Reddit and social media on ways to do what they want with the tablets. Teachers cannot easily scan the room to see the screens, and students know that.
Parents and teachers are dealing with nonstop competition for student attention. Smartphones tempt students with social media notifications. Tablets are affordable and everywhere. Inexpensive notebook computers cost less than $500.
Having observed high school and middle school classrooms before the pandemic, I concluded that the only way to limit what a student does with technology is to limit the technology time.
That’s what my wife and I did. We didn’t let the girls spend hours using our iPads, and we didn’t let them use our computers. Our daughters read books, made art and played outside.
Everything changed when COVID-19 forced us into virtual learning.
I decided to turn this into a learning opportunity. The girls and I assembled two computers, and we purchased a new Mac mini M1. Placing the computers in our living room and my wife’s office, we were ready to help the girls and monitor their technology habits.
Being in the same room as a child doesn’t mean you can monitor what he or she does on a computer. Virtual learning proved that screens open windows to dozens of distractions, especially games.
One afternoon while Susan was on a conference call, I walked past her office and saw our oldest switch applications using the keyboard. Our third-grader had already mastered using the control and tab keys to instantly return to schoolwork from something else.
Days later, I caught the first-grader opening Firefox to watch YouTube, since Chrome would not allow her to watch videos. How did she even know what Firefox was? Should I be impressed or worried that she later admitted to trying all four browsers in her quest to watch YouTube origami videos?
Both girls had been falling behind on assignments, often working until dinnertime. Other parents told us that virtual learning ended by noon.
When you have a shared family account with Apple or Microsoft, both services provide usage reports. I opened Apple’s Screen Time to discover that the third-grader was somehow spending an equal amount of time playing games as working during school hours. Microsoft 365 exposed our first-grader’s fascination with craft and cooking videos.
Taking away all computer access wasn’t an option this year. We wanted to trust our daughters, but we also needed to guide them toward better habits.
Susan and I talked to the girls about parental controls. I opened Screen Time within the Settings app on my iPad and showed the girls their usage reports.
“How much time should you have for games each day?” I asked.
We negotiated and set a limit, which has since increased to 25 minutes per day. We agreed to limits on YouTube time via Microsoft’s parental controls and Google’s linked account feature.
Apple and Microsoft allow parents to set time frames for use, too. We only limit game time during weekdays, not on weekends. The girls would rather be outside on weekends, yet lifting
the game restrictions made them feel trusted.
Research still suggests that it’s better to remind students that you can check their online activity than to micro-manage their access. We don’t check which games the girls play, for example, because we only have family-friendly games installed. Any purchases, however, would trigger an alert on Susan’s phone and mine.
As the girls finish their schoolwork and improve their grades, time limits will increase and restrictions will be loosened. They will earn trust.
The pandemic experience has not persuaded me that virtual learning works well. Instead, it has reminded me that technology offers tempting distractions.