The common refrain from experts is “there is no one-size-fits-all” recommendation when it comes to digital parenting strategies. A parent’s approach will differ depending on the age of their child, family circumstances and values, and the unique personality and capabilities of their child. However, there are some general guidelines that researchers and clinicians agree on. 

Consider developmental needs. Younger children require closer supervision, stricter limits, and more elaborate guidance. But as kids get older, especially as they become teenagers, they want and need more independence. In addition, it becomes logistically more difficult to provide constant supervision as children grow older. Parenting strategies should reflect this. But childhood media habits track into later childhood and adolescence, so it’s best to start early.

Model good digital behavior. This means demonstrating your own healthy screen time habits and displaying other positive online behaviors. Kids are always watching; what are they learning?

Establish and maintain open communication. Consistent open communication is the foundation for effective digital parenting. Parents can’t supervise everything a child does online, but they can always talk to their kids. Talk about what kids are doing online and what they are seeing. Approach conversations with an open mind and without judgment. This will help create a safe space for your child to come to you with any future concerns.

Be an active partner. Work directly with your child to establish, maintain, and adjust your child’s screen use and your own guidance. Co-view content or co-engage in digital activities with your child. Discuss screen use limits and content limits, as well as their rationale. Find out what is working well for your child online and what they are struggling with. Experts refer to this as “active mediation,” and it repeatedly shows better results than very loose parenting and very restrictive parenting.

Make a plan: It can be hard to know what to do in the moment, and to be consistent each time a child asks for screen time. Professionals recommend creating a family media plan so  making decisions in the moment can be easier and opportunities for learning and connection are less likely to fall through the cracks. Involve your kids in the plan as much as appropriate. The plan doesn’t have to be comprehensive, but keep these guiding principles in mind when developing one for your family:  

  • Know your limits. Be realistic about the time and effort you and your family have to commit to a plan. A plan that works for other families might not work for you. 
  • Select content intentionally. Choose high-quality content for younger kids, and decide on content that is off limits for older kids and teens
  • Set “screen-free” zones and times. Decide on times and places where screens can’t be used
  • Co-view and co-play. As much as possible, make screen time social and interactive. Planning ahead of time can make this easier
  • Model healthy behaviors. Stick to the same rules as your child. They learn from watching you.
  • Find community and resources. Seek out like-minded parents to talk with and build community. Find other helpful resources from trustworthy sources.

Digital parenting is not just about keeping a child safe at the moment. It is a valuable opportunity to teach children skills that they can carry with them through their life.

One important aspect is to role model for your children with your own screening practices…a big predictor of child screen use is parents’ screen use…so if you set rules for the household, you should also follow them yourselves.

Jason Nagata, MD, MSc Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco