We started this “kid with a cellphone” journey a few years ago, and I have since found myself pining for pioneer times when families read books by candlelight and bonded over farm chores. Alas, it is 2018, and technology isn’t going anywhere, so we are cautiously embracing it and trying to figure out how to do it right.
We have learned a few things through our first experience and after a lot of trial and error, so I thought I would share what we did right and wrong. If I could do it over again, these guidelines would be put in place well before the first cellphone was ever purchased. Changing rules and expectations as we went along was difficult, and I wish we'd had a clear, agreed upon understanding before we started on this path. So I wrote this in hopes that you might have a smoother first experience than we did.
Ten things I would do before giving my child a smartphone (or any smart device that has apps of any kind).
- Wait: If you are considering getting your child a smartphone, hold on and give it a little more time. I know, I know, everyone has one except your child (which most likely isn’t true), but there really is no rush. They will have a lifetime to be plugged in, and once you start, it is hard to go back. Make sure there is a real need and a decent amount of maturity before you rush into purchasing a smart anything.
- Start slowly: Begin with a flip phone. This is not the most socially acceptable option, but remember it is your money, your phone contract and your home. A flip phone is a great way to test the waters. You will have to spend more money than you want to on it, but I promise it is worth it. The one we purchased has a slide out keyboard and receives group messages, which is a big bonus in this text-heavy world. Starting with this type of phone helps kids understand what a phone is actually for: communication. It gives you a chance to teach phone etiquette — when a phone should be used and when it should be put away; how to answer and make a phone call; how and when to text; and the expectation that you always get back to your parents right away. As a bonus, when was the last time you heard a disturbing story of a teen with a flip phone?
- Get a filter: Do not give your child a smartphone without purchasing a filter. Our favorite is OurPact, an app that allows me to monitor the amount of time my child spends on his phone, restrict certain apps, set bedtimes and other schedules, filter adult content on browsers and block all usage from my cellphone. Seven dollars per month monitors up to 20 devices and is money well spent. This has been the biggest game-changer for us. If that price is too steep, they have other less expensive options that are better than nothing. If you don’t go this direction and your child has an iPhone, you can do great things under the restrictions tab, so set that up immediately with a good passcode. Verizon also offers a family plan for $5 per month that offers some important parental controls, as do other providers. Be especially vigilant when it comes to internet browsers and YouTube. In my opinion, if you can’t afford a filter that helps with content and time usage, you shouldn’t purchase a smartphone for your teen. If you think your kid is the exception, your head is in the sand. Even the very best tweens and teens need limits.
- Block downloads: Set the phone up so you have to approve each app that is downloaded, even the free ones. This allows you a chance to look into what is going on the phone and to monitor the apps that are being used. This also opens up conversation between you and your teen and gives you a chance to research apps before you OK them for your child. Do your homework before approving.
- Set a phone schedule: Phones, tablets and iPads should not be available for access 24/7. I believe in boredom, in learning without distractions, in family time and in face-to-face interaction. For all these things to happen, electronics have to be put away at times (adults too!). This was a hard one to backtrack on, but it is possible. We like to turn all the gaming and social media apps off during school, put phones away during homework time and dinner, set overall time limits and put phones to bed at night where they can’t disturb sleep. This plan also allows us to check the phone when we feel like we need to. We will glance at texts and direct messages and have a discussion the next day if there is anything we are worried about.
- Know the codes: Again, you are the parent, so you should always know the access codes. Ask for each device every once in a while randomly, before anything can be erased, and check in on things. This can give you great insight into the world of your teen and allow you the opportunity to help them if help is needed. If you find something you don’t like or something that surprises or disappoints you, try to calmly converse with your child about expectations, improvement and change. Show love and work on solutions together.
- Have a serious conversation and have it again and again. Kids need to understand that everything they say, do or send online can be seen forever. Nothing they say is a secret or disappears. Every video they record remains forever. No one should post 100 selfies. Share a few scary stories about sexting, violent threats and online bullying … you can find them just about anywhere. Make hard rules about who can follow them and be sure their accounts are private. Remind them to use their influence for good when it comes to their phone. Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say in person. Be kind, be smart, uplift.
- Start social media slowly or not at all. If you can avoid social media, do it. If you can’t for some reason, take it very slowly. Let them set up a profile on your phone, but you should be the only one who knows the password so you have to log them in. Allow them to get on social media when you are around and can help monitor. Set a reasonable time limit for being online. Follow your son or daughter on all platforms and log in to their account to make sure everything is going well (posts, direct messages, disappearing photos, group chats). Decide together who they can follow and who can follow them. Warn them about what they might see or encounter because of social media: not being included, inappropriate photos from others, requests for nude photos, bullying, feeling worthless because of lack of likes or comments, jealousy, rating games, even depression. These feelings are real and should be talked about openly. Encourage them to evaluate how they feel often, being honest with themselves and with you. If social media is bringing them down, help them take a break or stop.
- Set up direct consequences for misuse. I know there are experts who say you should not use a phone as a bargaining tool, but I disagree. At our house, when homework is not getting done, when time is being wasted, when kids are not responsive, it is most often because of an electronic device, so it makes absolute sense to me to eliminate that device if it is the reason things are off kilter. When grades are good, family engagement is high, physical activity is happening and chores are completed, a phone is fine in moderation. If you really feel like you can’t take the phone away, at the very least remove all of the time-wasting apps until situations and attitudes improve.
- Take a break. Every now and then, it is good for the brain, heart and soul to take a real break from the phone to prove that it is possible to live life without being attached to a device. It is refreshing and empowering for them to realize how much time they spend on their phone and the distraction that it can be. If you dare, join them in this. Even a day or two provides a great detox and a wonderful restart. Every time we do this, perspective is brought back into our daily life and our kids realize how nice life is unplugged.
We were far from perfect the first time around, and I am sure we will have plenty of mess-ups with the next three, but these guidelines have drastically changed the way we use technology in our home and made it a much more peaceful and sane experience.
I have heard it said hundreds of times, “Phones are here to stay, so our kids need to learn how to use them.” And while I absolutely agree with that statement, unregulated, unmonitored use of technology isn’t teaching them anything. As parents, we have the burden and privilege of guiding and helping them figure out how to use technology in moderation and to their advantage without letting go of the beauty that is real, screen-free life. If you think it is too late, it's not. Now that you know better, do better. For us, these 10 tips have been a giant step in the right direction.