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Tech talk in Perham keeps parents on top of kid's habits

Three children playing with electronic devices - tablet, smartphone and games controller

While a new app takes the world by storm on a weekly basis, it's nearly impossible for parents to keep up with what their kids are capable of doing online.

"It's amazing how much is available," said Dave Eisenmann, director of instructional technology and media services for Minnetonka Public Schools, who was recently in Perham to talk to the community about screen time. "The tools are changing, but what doesn't change is the important role we, as parents, have to guide our kids through this world of tech."

The Raising Tech Healthy Kids parent workshop, led by Eisenmann, taught local parents last week how to balance technology's positives with its potential to do harm. It was held at Heart of the Lakes Elementary.

Eisenmann's talk tackled a number of topics ranging from proactively sharing values and expectations away from home, modeling a healthy balance, filter and restrict access to certain content and understanding the difference between entertainment and educational screen time.

Eisenmann's message focused on what has worked for him as he navigates the world of technology while raising four kids ranging in age from 10 to 18.

Regardless if it's the newest thing, Eisenmann said "the skills we instill are ones where we don't need to know exactly how each game or app works, we can give them the ability to use tech wisely to make good decisions with it."

The path to helping develop good habits with technology starts with how parents use technology in front of their kids, Eisenmann said.

"Pay attention to what we're modeling in our kids' lives," he said. "Think through, how important is it that I'm checking twitter or looking at Instagram, versus just being with my kid and sitting on the floor and playing a game."

Starting at a young age, get kids to understand the expectations and values of using technology instead of waiting until something goes wrong, Eisenmann said.

Eisenmann said so often, parents just give their kids the newest device without realizing what it's capable of until it's too late.

"Think back to drivers ed, your parents just didn't hand you their car keys. They helped you learn how to drive, versus just saying, 'go out and drive,'" he said. "It's an elaborate process. Think ahead of time by setting up rules and guidelines."

Jackie Bunkowske, a local mother, said she's concerned her kids are playing more video games than they should.

"I don't know all the games and if they're good or bad," she said. "They hear in school what other kids are playing, they can find them, and go to the app store and download anything that's free whether it's good, bad, or ugly."

Eisenmann said the decision of when to give their child a smartphone is different for every family, but the majority of families he polls choose between sixth and ninth grade.

In his own family, Eisenmann has used a gradual release of technology.

"Start with just the phone, show us you can use this responsibly," he said. "They're going to learn under guidance, instead of getting it all at once."

Eisenmann said he's seen kids who have free reign over all social media not have any self-control or moderation, because they haven't learned or developed in incremental bits.

"Middle school age is not a good age to introduce our kids to social media, they aren't mature, not that high school is that much more mature," he said. "It takes a huge amount of maturity to filter what we see happening online."

For this reason, Eisenmann waited until his kids were 14-years-old before they could start on Instagram and 16-years-old before they could use Snapchat.

"Research suggests the abstinence method creates reckless abandon, 'I'm going to video game my way through freshman year and not even go to class, because I've never had rules in place,'" he said. "Find a happy medium to start helping them along."

When asked how parents can monitor social media sites when apps such as Snapchat make it impossible to see everything, Eisenmann said there needs to be trust in place.

"In the same way my parents couldn't listen to every conversation I had with friends at the lunch table," he said. "They weren't monitoring all that, and making sure things were appropriate."

"We can do our best up front to set up guidelines to let our kids know what we feel is ok to Snapchat," he said. "Bring it up in frequent conversations, not this one time tech talk, 'sign on the bottom line and we're done talking about technology.'"

Eisenmann recommends setting up "what if" scenarios instead of "have you ever?"

For example, start by asking "what would you do if someone sent you an inappropriate picture in a Snapchat?" rather than "have you ever sent a yucky message?"

"It's a very different conversation. It doesn't have them backed into a corner where the only option is to tell you the truth or face the consequences," he said. "Help kids understand what they could do better next time and not come down so hard with consequences that they're not going to want to talk about it again."

Eisenmann demonstrated how smartphone users can make small tweaks to turn off and mute notifications to ensure they're in control of their own device.

"Your phone doesn't have to beep and buzz every time you get an email, every time a social media post is made, every time a team scores," he said. "Help kids to pay attention to what sort of control they have over their own device, instead of it pushing and controlling them and grabbing their attention."

To keep technology under control, Eisenmann said to set up boundaries, and to "be where your feet are" which means no technology in the car, in bed at night or at the dinner table.

While there's much to be said about the dangers of too much screen time, Eisenmann said there's no limit to the amount of educational screen time kids can witness.

"It's not the fact that it's a screen, it's the content on the screen that matters," he said. "You can look at all the educational screens you want for hours and hours, it's not harming you, it's the passive sitting and watching entertainment."

Heart of the Lakes Elementary Principal Jen Hendrickson said her biggest takeaway was taking a look at herself and her own habits to be a healthier user of technology.

"As parents of young kids growing up, it's a bit scary to stay on top of everything," she said. "We don't fully research or investigate what it all involves and what it can do."

Hendrickson said in recent years she's seen students lacking self-regulation skills, because kids are used to using technology almost at all times.

"I personally struggle as a leader of a school preparing kids for the 21st century," she said of balancing technology with education.