Parenting in the age of electronic devices is new and uncharted territory for all of us. There are many articles and posts with great suggestions and solutions, but I wanted to add my voice to that conversation and share some lessons I’ve learned in the past few years.
When our daughters were 16 and 14 they saved their money and paid for half the cost of their iPad Minis. It was toward the beginning of teenagers (or anyone) having these types of devices, and I was quite naive as to what could go wrong or what parameters I should set up. It was very difficult to go back and take away electronic privileges that they had become accustomed to. If I could do it again, I would set up the following standards and constraints from the very beginning.
- Establish dual ownership. Even though the device might be “theirs” you need to make it clear that it is also yours, in the sense that you can take it when you deem necessary, can look at it when you want, can make restrictions on its use, and can monitor the way they use it. This sounds simple, but when our girls got their devices we didn’t have such conversations or expectations. When we realized we needed access to the devices for all the above reasons, they were very resistant and protective. Setting up this dual ownership doesn’t have to be done in a harsh or demeaning way. It can be part of the conversation about the benefits and risks of using devices, and the need for continual parental supervision until they are adults. If this expectation is set up from the beginning, teens might balk at first, but they will get used to it.
- Have “break” times. We decided to have an hour a week (our was Sundays 6:00-7:00) where the girls hand over their devices to us. This gives them a break and gives us time to look through their phone and see what they’ve been up to. I look through their social media accounts to see who they are following and what kind of content is posted. I look through their browser (safari) pages and check the history. You can learn a lot about what your child is interested in or curious about by doing this! Sometimes I read their texts or notes or reminders. It feels slightly invasive but there could be something going on that is important for you to know about. At first they weren’t crazy about handing over their devices, but now they are used to it, and we can see the immense benefits. They engage with the family more and find other ways to entertain themselves. Sometimes they don’t even ask for them at 7:00 because they are enjoying themselves so much. If a device is available it is almost always the easiest and most fun thing to do. A mandatory break is necessary for them to realize the pull the device has on them. Once we started this break time, we wished we’d done it years ago, and we wished we’d done it more often. Maybe twice a week would be even better. It really helps to pull them out of the constantly-checking-updates mode and see the real world for a while. When my children were young I knew they needed and craved boundaries, but I forgot to apply this same parenting philosophy to my teenagers.
- Sequester devices when guests come over. I had an epiphany about this during our family reunion this summer. The girls were excited to see their cousins and aunts and uncles, but couldn’t seem to break away from their devices. Even when they were interested in the conversation, they had their phones right by them to check their feeds continually. I realized I should have set up a standard long ago that when visiting with family or family friends, devices are not allowed. This would get them in the habit of focusing on the people and forgetting about the devices and would be especially useful at holidays and family gatherings. Again, when the devices are around they are too tempting (even for adults!). (I wouldn’t necessarily make this rule for when their friends come over – devices are a big part of friendships these days.)
- Consider each app they use or buy. Someone pointed out to me that you can take the safari web-browsing app right an Apple device. This would be a great idea for a young child who wants a device but you don’t want to give them access to everything on the internet. You can set your account up such that you have to approve each app your child purchases. This way you will know what is on his phone. Everyone will have their own decisions and reasons for which app is appropriate for their child and which isn’t, but it’s much easier to prohibit an app before download it and acquire 50 friends or followers.
- Keep an eye on whom and how many they are following on social media. This one took me really by surprise. I had very strong feelings about the evils of fashion magazines (air brushing, body image distortion, adult content, etc.), especially for daughters, but one day I found out that my daughter was following Vogue on Instagram, seeing and learning some inappropriate things. I realized that Instagram can be like an endless variety of magazines – and I needed to be aware of which ones my daughter was subscribing to. There are multiple problems that can result from whom and how many they follow on social media. The first is obviously the content: you want to know and approve of what your children are seeing and experiencing (Vogue was NOT on the approved content list!). The second is the frequency some groups post. For instance, my older daughter is interested in human rights, but some groups she followed post 3-4 times a day, overwhelming her with propaganda and sometimes disturbing images. A third problem is the total number of posts in their feed. The more people they follow, the longer it takes them to “keep up” with everyone. They have to constantly check what’s new and spend a considerable amount of time reading what has been posted since they last checked. I realized that if I put a limit on how many they can follow, I would be limiting the volume of information coming through their feed (again, easier done from the beginning than asking them to pare down).
If I’d set up these parameters early on we could have avoided some frustrations and problems with my girls’ device use. Hopefully some parents can learn from my mistakes!
Note: for a more in depth look at handling teens and their electronics use see Electronics. Also, here is an example of a electronics contract between parents and teens (on Saren Eyre Loosli’s blog), which can be used as an actual contract or to facilitate a conversation and help you remember all the important points you want to cover!