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Parenting in the Smartphone Era

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Parenting in the Smartphone Era

Parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They know smartphones can cause their kids harm, yet modern realities do not allow children to completely disconnect. What options do parents have to properly raise their children?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). This scripture was penned thousands of years before smartphones were omnipresent in the lives of our teens. Yet these words are no less relevant for us parents now than they were back then.

Parents have always faced challenges raising their kids. Our job is much harder in the age of smartphones.

A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone with 45 percent admitting they were online “almost constantly.” This was four years ago, which may as well be 40 years in technology terms. The long-term impact of this still relatively new technology on our youth continues to surface.

Beginning in 2012—the first year most Americans owned a smartphone—rates of teenage depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide rose sharply. In the 10 years since, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that depression rates among teens nearly doubled.

Plummeting child mental health is only part of the smartphone nightmare for parents. Add online bullying, access to pornography, potential interactions with child predators, and sexting (sharing sexual text messages and images of nudity). And then there is lack of sleep, difficulty with verbal conversations, chronic lethargy, shoddy schoolwork, as well as dropped household chores and responsibilities.

What is considered a modern marvel is becoming a modern curse.

“Parents should just not allow their teenagers to have a smartphone,” some might insist. The conundrum for parents is that an all-or-nothing approach to smartphone use by their kids is simply impractical. This is especially true in a society so reliant on the technology.

Today teachers, coaches, employers, family and friends all expect—in some cases require—teens to be connected. Imagine the two-year period of coronavirus lockdowns without smartphones and other mobile devices. The screen was an instructor’s lifeline to homebound students, and mobile devices became one of the only ways children could find entertainment while they were not allowed to go out to play with their peers.

Parents themselves rest their worries in the devices. They take comfort in knowing they can reach out to and be reached by their kids while they are out in this increasingly dangerous world.

The bottom line: It is unrealistic to shield kids from their phones and hope everything works out.

This does not mean parents should allow the phones—and the companies and app developers behind them—to have free rein over their kids’ minds.

Parenting is a God-given stewardship that is not abrogated by developments in technology. As the world of technology advances, parents’ presence in their children’s lives is even more crucial. Like so many other aspects of growing up, our youngsters must be taught how and when to use smart gadgets responsibly.

To do it right, you must be prepared.

The Good Old Days

Dads and moms long for the pre-smartphone days when children spent more time playing sports, hanging out with their friends, and doing other non-digital activities. At the same time, they are mortified by the idea of completely removing phones from their kids’ lives. They are left to manage the gap between these two worlds.

Desperate parents are turning to so-called screen coaches to combat the problem of their kids spending too much time online. The New York Times explained how these “screen consultants” are paid to come to homes, schools and churches “to remind parents how people parented before.”

One has over 30 years of experience in schools and private practice, as well as a master’s degree in K-12 learning and behavior disabilities. Yet her counsel to parents who are trying to get their young ones to unplug is not a list of sophisticated strategies and fancy psychological tactics. Instead, her approach is remarkably simple: have parents remember the activities they did while growing up.

Her sage advice includes having parents give their children a piece of material to use as a cape or finding a ball to throw and kick with their children.

“I say [to my clients], ‘Just try to remember what you did as a kid,’” said another coach in Chicago. “And it’s so hard, and they’re very uncomfortable, but they just need to remember.” Clients come back with memories of painting or looking at the moon. “They report back like it’s a miracle.”

These screen-free coaches typically recommend eight to 12 sessions with parents and charge up to $80 per hour in small cities and rural areas and $125 to $250 per hour in larger cities. It goes to show how desperate parents are becoming to help their kids.

The approach of these screen coaches and other new-age practitioners is not really new. It is timeworn and proven (some would say old fashioned and outdated). They are marketing the past, which holds the solution to the problems from children using smartphones.

The first man and woman were told to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This is God’s command for people to have children. But there is more.

When God—a Father Himself—created mankind, He envisioned a planet filled with happy parents who viewed their children as a “heritage” and “reward” (Psa. 127:3-5). He expected adults to love and properly train their children to help them to be happy and useful.

Today’s parents have forgotten or never actually learned how to do any of that.

Parenting is much more than giving birth and providing for children. It is a dedicated time of teaching and helping impressionable human beings navigate a sea of influences—good and bad.

Sadly, so many adults are caught in the same technology tsunami as their kids—bombarded with information and always connected—leaving little time to improve as mothers and fathers. Parents can sense that a smartphone in the hands of a child has drawbacks, but they lack the skills to implement a parenting plan to properly deal with these real concerns.

Despite this, more and more are wising up to the idea of helping their kids use phones responsibly. They recognize that the way to rescue their children from the smartphone trap is to apply age-old common sense.

God desires for parents to leverage technology as an effective tool for their children, while not allowing it to ruin them.

Here are five areas parents should consider regarding smartphones for their children. They apply whether your son or daughter already has a phone or you plan to allow them to have one in the future.

What’s the Right Age?

The average age children acquire their first smartphone is 10. Yet it is not unusual for those as young as 7 to have their own device.

Still, professionals recommend kids hold off as long as possible. “The longer you keep Pandora’s box shut, the better off you are,” says Ohio-based online safety expert Jesse Weinberger. “There’s no connection to the dark side without the device.” Ms. Weinberger gives lectures at middle and high schools on the dangers of smartphones in the hands of a young person.

One successful approach is the Wait Until 8th Pledge. Under the agreement, at least 10 families sign a pledge to wait until their children are at least in 8th grade (age 13) before giving them a smartphone. Parents support each other throughout the process.

James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that equips parents to teach their children responsible tech use, recommends young people wait until high school before being allowed to have a smartphone. He believes they should prioritize face-to-face communication during their phone-free years.

Mr. Steyer acknowledged that some parents may decide their children are ready sooner. “No two kids are the same, and there’s no magic number.” He went on to say, “A kid’s age is not as important as his or her own responsibility or maturity level.”

The key is for parents to be honest with themselves about their children.

Common Sense Media provided the following list of questions on its website to consider before giving a child a smartphone:

Does your child show a sense of responsibility such as letting you know when they leave the house? Do they show up when they say they will?

Does your child tend to lose things, such as backpacks or homework folders? If so, expect they might lose an expensive phone, too.

Does your child need to be in touch with you for safety reasons?

Would having easy access to friends benefit his or her social life?

Do you trust your child will use a phone responsibly, for example by not texting during class or disturbing others with conversations?

Will your child adhere to the limits you set for minutes talked and apps downloaded?

Will your child use text, photo and video functions responsibly, avoiding embarrassing or harassing others?

Unless your child meets all of these points, it is best to wait before he or she receives a powerful and expensive device. You can also use this list as a guide to motivate children not yet mature enough to handle a phone.

For parents truly needing to remain in touch with their children for safety or convenience reasons, there are “dumb phones.” These allow phone calls and texting but do not have full internet access. Though your children may want phones like their friends, with all the latest and greatest features, it is your responsibility as a parent to not hand a powerful yet potentially dangerous tool to someone who is not ready for it.

Technology Agreement

Less than half of parents regularly discuss their child’s online behavior and social media content with them. Something as simple as a technology agreement can stimulate a discussion about smartphone use, all while helping parents avoid coming off as intrusive.

This kind of agreement, for which templates are easily available online, is a list of statements and points that specify how technology will and will not be used by those listed in the agreement. They explain the importance of using technology responsibly as well as several dos and don’ts.

These arrangements tend to work well since they communicate clear rules, engage youth and foster mutual respect between parents and their children. They are also a great way to treat children like responsible young people and help them appreciate the power that comes with having a phone.

These agreements are also a good way to hold kids accountable for behavior that violates any agreed upon terms.

Here are three examples of language from technology agreements:

“I will take care of the device I am using and tell my family if it is broken, stolen or lost. As a family, we have agreed on the consequences if I lose or break a device, and I understand those consequences.”

“I understand that mom and dad have placed limits on how often I can use my devices and that we have a time in the evening when all devices are turned in and shut off.”

“I will be mindful of how much time I spend in front of screens, and I will continue to enjoy other activities—and people—in my life.”

As the kids get older and demonstrate more responsibility, you can and should be open to updating the agreement where appropriate. This can also apply to certain times of year such as summer vacation or when they are off from school.

A thorough agreement helps families use technology to grow closer together instead of allowing it to drive them apart.

Model the Proper Behavior

Avoid the “do as I say, not what I do” mentality when it comes to using your own devices. If you say “no phones at the dinner table” but your cell is on your lap, it will speak much louder than anything you say.

What are some habits you can adopt to model proper phone behavior for your kids? Before picking up your device, ask yourself, “Why am I looking at my phone?” If there is no good reason, then leave it be. Another habit is to avoid sleeping with your phone at hand and explain to your children why this is a good practice, for example it helps you get better quality sleep.

Explain your phone use when it may seem you are using it at an inappropriate time. This can include while looking at directions while driving or occasionally glancing at your phone for an important work email while out for dinner. Verbalizing what you are doing helps kids understand your phone use is temporary and purposeful instead of just to distract yourself.

You should also excuse yourself if you have to use your phone during family time. This lets your kids and other family members know they have your undivided attention when you are with them.

Finally, make screen-free activities a regular part of your family routine. Kids should see that there are other ways to spend their leisure time.

Set Boundaries

So many parents seek to please their kids or avoid tension with them at all costs. True love is telling your children what is best for them whether they want to hear it or not. No decent parent would allow a child to hang out with strangers, talk about drugs and alcohol, or stay out all night in a seedy part of town. Yet parents allow these interactions virtually by giving teenagers unbridled access to technology.

Remember, you are a parent first and friend second. Saying no to getting a smartphone or requiring its proper use should be unequivocal. Children tend to go as far as we allow them. If we are wishy-washy about enforcing certain rules, children will almost certainly take advantage.

Explain to your child that having a phone is not a right but a privilege.

Require your teen to have face-to-face conversations with you and other adults. Set rules on where they can and cannot use their devices such as in bed, or during ideal conversation opportunities such as at the dinner table or during long car rides.

Help your children balance their phone use. They can use them to keep up with news events, watch educational videos, listen to podcasts, play games, chat with friends, and browse social media sites. But know that too much of some of these and not enough of others can become a problem. Let them know which websites are off limits.

Also, require your kids to take a break from their phones to read books, magazines and newspapers. The public library remains a bastion of these old-fashioned resources. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are also inexpensive.

If you see your child struggling with phone use, do not be afraid to adjust his access or take it away altogether. You have an obligation as a parent to help.

Parental Controls

Use parental controls to ensure your child is consuming proper content. Many operating systems such as iOS and Android include these tools in their applications.

There are also third-party applications such as Qustodio or Bark you can use to monitor a mobile device. These applications allow parents to monitor and set timers on their children’s phone use, block pornography and other harmful content, and permit or restrict phone use altogether—all remotely from the master device.

Adults are often not as tech-savvy as their kids and can find some parental control apps complicated to use. However, we should be prepared to do what it takes to figure out how these applications work to keep our children safe from themselves and others. Do research to find the right parental control application for you and your family.

Familiarize yourself with basic mobile phone technology to control your child’s internet use. Understand things such as Wi-Fi access versus cellular access. Know how internet service comes into your home and how a modem and router work. Know how to disconnect smartphone devices from the network. Your internet provider or a quick Google search can help with all these.

Know the apps your kids are using. Most apps are what they appear to be while others appear innocent but have dark purposes such as promoting self-harm, sex and drugs. One application, for instance, allows teens to hide photos in what looks like a calculator app.

Also realize that tech-savvy children can figure out how to work around parental controls. Therefore, you should stay on top of what they are doing on their phones. Warn your child that attempts to disable or work around parental controls with shadow accounts could lead to an extended, if not permanent, loss of phone privilege.

Parental controls, while helpful, are not perfect. They are a tool, not a replacement for your direct involvement.

Be a Parent

The next generation does not have to be lost to smartphones. We cannot use our lack of knowledge about technology as an excuse for not being a good parent. Our children may want phones because their friends have them. But this does not automatically mean they or even their friends are mature enough.

Remember, when giving a smartphone to anyone, you are handing them a most powerful tool. They can use it to reach and be reached by just about anyone in the world—all in the palm of their hand.

Take the time to teach your children how to use technology responsibly. It will benefit them from the time they are ready to use smartphones and for the rest of their lives.

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