“Kids have a screen in their faces on the average of 7.5 hours a day,” said Tony Bianco, middle school student minister at The Loop Campus of Houston’s First Baptist Church and a technology consultant who aids parents in gaining control over their family’s media addiction.
After working as an Apple Expert while attending seminary, Tony fell into the role of technology consultant to families just over two years ago after giving a talk at a father-son Bible study. The lesson, “Honoring God in your Status Updates,” struck a chord with the dads, many realizing they could use a little help managing their kids’ (and their own) media use.
Tony began meeting with families and counseling them on the basis of three “WHYs?” behind having a technology plan:
“Screen addiction is a real phenomenon,” said Tony. “It’s a clinical addiction, much like an addiction to drugs or alcohol.”
In addition to overcoming the addictive nature of apps and the World Wide Web, many parents recognize that some children are lacking in relational skills that those in pre-Web generations are not. “This generation is the most social, non-social generation ever,” said Tony. Instructing younger children, beginning in third or fourth grade, he says, is the optimal time to begin setting parameters on devices in the household.
“The demographics for cell phone use has gotten younger,” he says. Tony and Diamend (right) have two young children who are growing up with technology all around them. “Parents raised before the digital generation have no precedent for parenting children with cell phones, tablets and game consoles. Knowing how to protect and guide children through the digital world can be a little daunting.”
Tony initially began consulting with Steve and Kelly Madden and their four children, who range in age from 13 to 19. The oldest was 17 when Tony began working with them. “We could see bad influences encroaching in our family life through all the devices and untraceable new software,” said Steve. “We had no plan, alignment or rules established.”
The strategy is to assist families in getting a handle on technology in four instructional sessions. Tony kicks off with a meet and greet of the whole family where he assesses the technology in their lives, sets goals and gets buy-in from students in the household about the necessity of a technology plan in their home.
“Tony has a wonderful gift of getting everyone (kids and parents) on the same page through setting common family goals,” said Kelly. “The goals begin to reveal themselves in the interview/profile meeting.”
The next meeting is a walk-through of statistics, figures and research. Each family member fills out an evaluation sheet about his or her own priorities and preferences for using their digital devices and game systems. In a “parents only” meeting during each session, Tony discusses loopholes and little known information like parental controls, rating systems in apps, and practices and apps to watch out for.
“Parents need to know the ways predators are getting to children through their devices,” said Tony. “Often they gain access through their children’s ‘Friends.’ Social media is a two-way street. If you don’t know your child’s friends well, there’s potential for inappropriate content coming to his or her device.”
In the third meeting, the initial draft of the Family Technology Plan is presented so each family member can see the others’ priorities. Tony goes over each person’s version to reinforce the whys of the process. The family makes tweaks as Tony continues to discuss time and location schedules and specific behaviors when using their devices.
“The older children were a bit shocked at the schedule we adopted, and frankly, so were we,” said Steve, “but we’re all on the same page now. We have less screen time and more family time.”
Finally, in the last meeting each family member gets a copy of the Plan and declares their cooperation by signing a covenant (family contract) to visually reinforce their decision. At this meeting, Tony also takes questions and acts as a personal technology guide to troubleshoot problems family members may be having.
Kelly says dealing with technology is a significant part of parenting and wishes they had heard about Tony earlier in the process. “Establishing a Family Technology Plan before devices are introduced is actually better timing,” she says, “— before entitlement of ownership sets in.”
Helping a child make good media choices means educating parents about the pluses and pitfalls of technology. Parents can take back family time by holding children accountable to established family values and expectations, and reinforcing appropriate behaviors in the home.
“No matter how old your child is, as long as they are still living at home, it isn’t too late to establish a technology plan,” said Tony. “It boils down to deciding that technology won’t rule your family.”