Tech & Media

Modelling Good Tech Behaviour For Kids

Oct 28, 2014

For parents of preschoolers, the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ maxim is always at the back of the brain. You don’t need reams of academic studies to know children mimic how the adults in their lives act and talk. This means we try to serve as good role models, teaching our kids how to behave not only by telling them, but also showing them through our actions. We extra-eagerly wash our hands with soap for the full ABCs when our kids are in the room, and our subconscious gets surprisingly good at eliminating curse words when little ones are in the backseat of the car.

Modelling good behaviour is nothing new. However, a growing number of moms and dads are unsure how using tablets or smartphones in front of their children might be impacting how little ones think of technology. Is occasionally checking Facebook at the playground or claiming a Tetris bonus spin during bath time really that big of a deal?

When it comes to children learning by imitating adults, it’s not just the big actions they follow.

An Australian study found “over-imitation”—a process where children copy everything an adult shows them, not just the seemingly ‘important’ things—appears to be a universal human activity. We’re hardwired to develop by being copycats. This is the reason preschoolers emulate their parents. It’s also the reason why my 4.5-year-old’s favourite toy last year was a thin wood block she cheerfully called her ‘tablet.’ My daughter carried it with her all over, and would use it to watch videos or take pictures or play apps everywhere. (Alas, this means she had a better data plan than her dad, who is limited to WiFi at home.)

At first, I thought this was cute—not all that different from the dozens of faux-cell-phones at the toy store. But part of me worried whether my daughter associated me a little too much with my tablet. If she thought I was dependent on it, would that make her over-reliant as she grew older?

She has a few apps, and I want her to know this kind of technology can be educational, fun, and/or an outlet of creativity, but only in moderation. So, when I feel the compulsion for a quick glance at Twitter while she’s grabbing jigsaw puzzles, or if I ‘need’ to check soccer scorelines while she’s picking books for bedtime, I worry I’m a little too plugged in. I’m not alone, either.

[Kids are] hardwired to develop by being copycats.

“As a work-at-home mom, I am often checking my phone for e-mails and faxes,” says Yvonne, an Ottawa mother of a two-year-old. “Most of these stolen moments are while we’re at the park, when we arrive at a destination and my son is still harnessed in his car seat, or on the way to the bathroom. Before 1:30 p.m., it’s one or two times an hour, and after nap time, I stop.”

“But one day this summer, he asked me to put my phone down: ‘Phone aqui,’ while patting the couch far from where I was sitting. I got teary-eyed and listened to his request. I was on Facebook—a serious low point,” she says. “My partner and I have instituted a mug to ‘park’ our phones from the time he arrives home until our son’s bedtime. There has been mixed success, but we’re continuing it. I think that shows some control and a need to not have immediate responses to anything, and it is a two-way street.”

Putting away the ‘toys’ while the kids are around isn’t for everyone, but some find it really works. Ultimately, it’s important to keep perspective on what’s right for your family—and not be too hard on yourself when you can’t stick to your goals.

Vickie, a mother of two in the Greater Toronto Area, usually waits for kids to go to sleep before pulling out a tablet. While she uses her smartphone in front of them, she says she tries to be conscious and mindful about always being “in the present moment” with her children.

“I don’t want them to become addicted to the technology,” she says. “I want them to learn to create balance, which is something that is challenging even as adults, so I try to model this. Sometimes I fail at it, but I think I generally am pretty good.”

On Kids’ CBC's Facebook page, we asked whether parents worry what kind of habits their kids might be picking up when it comes to digital devices. There are many parents who limit their use while in their children’s presence, but also a number who don’t necessarily see it as a big deal, as long as it’s not too excessive. What do you think? Have you tried curbing your digital use in front of your preschooler?

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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