I came home from a business trip to find my then-9-year-old daughter fiddling with a sparkly new iPod Touch. When I asked my husband where she got it, he said, “She begged me to take her to the store and paid for it with her own money, so I figured it was fine.”
But soon she was doing almost everything we could do on our iPhones — incessantly texting, FaceTiming and accessing the Internet — before we could set limits. We had no idea it could do almost everything an iPhone does as long as it was connected to WiFi.
So much for carefully considering the right age and rules for getting a cellphone. We had unwittingly opened Pandora’s box.
Not all parents are as clueless as we were, but plenty wish they could put the phone back in the box. Here are some ideas for rebooting kids’ relationships with their phones, if you find yourself in that position.
Assess your situation
Becky Worley covers technology for ABC News and is writing a book about kids and screens.
“I am on the front line of the battlefield. . . . Since I’ve been witnessing this, I’ve held off on giving my kids access,” she says. But she doesn’t blame parents who have given their kids a phone. “We didn’t know then what we know now, so go easy on yourself. The research community didn’t know either . . . the effect of screens on children’s developing brains.”
It’s never too late to reset things, though, and regain control. Worley has suggestions for disrupting the connection between your child and their phone, depending how obsessed they are.
Psychologists suggest using addiction criteria to gauge this. Ask yourself:
• Does your child get angry, anxious — or even violent — if you take away their phone?
• Does he or she withdraw from activities and social events to use the cellphone?
• Do your child’s relationships, schoolwork or hygiene suffer because of cellphone use?
Based on the severity of the issue, you can try one of two approaches.
Executive function method. For easier cases, Worley suggests calmly showing your tween or teen a timeline of their day, which should make it evident how limited the hours between school and bedtime are. Ask your son or daughter to make a viable plan for using those hours for homework, chores, eating dinner and enjoying some downtime. The idea is that maturing young people will self-regulate if they see just how little time is available to zone out on their phones, and that will help them set realistic limits.
Cold-turkey detox. For tougher cases, Worley‘s plan is based on a Stanford University study, which suggests stopping any addictive behavior completely for a month, perhaps with the help of a counselor or therapist. The idea is to interrupt the rhythm of the habit and rest the brain. After that, you and your child can work together to add the phone back while putting barriers in place that will cut down on future cellphone abuse.
Using parental controls
Speaking of barriers, avoid monitoring systems that are hard for you to maintain, such as setting external timers to limit tech use, or creating chore charts to award it. Those systems are tedious, exhausting and make you the bad guy. Instead, take advantage of automated parental controls, either as part of the phone’s operating system or outside apps. This takes the emotional heat out of limiting cellphone use and makes it pleasantly cold and clinical. It’s a good idea to set your strictest controls at the beginning, then ease up gradually, because parenting experts say kids do best when they can see themselves gaining more freedom over time. Focus on three areas to monitor their use.
Limit their time. You can designate certain times of day — during school, at night, etc. — when your child cannot use their phone. And you can control the total amount of time they spend using certain types of apps, such as games. Apple’s Screen Time function and Google’s Family Link app for Android are free and work quite well for this.
Limit their access. You may also wish to block your child’s access to adult content on the Internet. Or you may want to prevent them from using certain types of apps, such as social media, until they are older. Again, the Apple and Android ecosystems both provide ample free tools to help you accomplish this.
Track their location. The phone’s built-in tools also allow you to track your child’s location, but they are not as robust as outside apps. The best apps tell you where your child is and also store some history of where they have been. Some even allow you to create “geofences.” Not a fan of your daughter’s boyfriend? Construct a geofence around his home, and you’ll know when she shows up there. PC Mag likes Boomerang, FamilyTime and Locategy for their tracking features. Prices range from $16 to $27 a year.
This is all good advice, but the best thing you can do to reset your child’s relationship with their phone and set them up for future success is talk.
Talk about your own struggles with your cellphone and ask for their advice. Do you compulsively check your phone at stoplights? I do. Talk about the apps they like and why — and how to use them safely. Talk about how, when you were a kid, gossip was bad, but at least it wasn’t in writing where it could be stored — and forwarded. Talk about the dangers of sending nude photos. Talk about why you are tracking their location or monitoring their social media use, if you are.
A lot of it really is that simple. Just talk. To each other. In person.
Tools for cellphone use
Here are some tools — high- and low-tech — to help everyone in the family manage their cellphone habits. It really helps if kids see that you are working to do better, too.
Apple Screen Time : A built-in system for restricting usage time, time spent on particular apps and more.
Google’s Family Link : Free Android app for restricting time, time spent on particular apps and more.
Parental control apps: Some apps even allow you to monitor your kids’ cellphone activity keystroke by keystroke. Worley likes the Circle parental control dashboard. PCMag gives its highest overall ratings to Qustodio and Kaspersky Safe Kids.
Family media plan : The American Academy of Pediatrics has created this thought-provoking online form to fill out with your kids, to set goals and limits around technology use.
Smart WiFi Routers. Some routers, like Aero and Google Home, have their own parental controls. Or you can just turn your existing WiFi off at night.
System preferences. Turn off audible chimes and beeps that alert you and your kids to text messages and social media posts to stop the constant stimuli. You can do the same for push messages.
Charging station. Buy a cute multi-device charging station, set it up far from your bedrooms, and announce that everybody — including parents — will be docking their devices at night from now on.
Alarm clocks. Old-fashioned battery powered ones sell for as little as $8. Go retro! There is no reason to have a smartphone next to your bed.
Shoe box. A place for all family members to deposit their (silenced!) cellphones before meals. DIY it with cute wrapping paper if it makes you feel better.
Rules for cellphone use
Here are some basic rules that have worked for other families in limiting technology. I think the first two should be mandatory. Pick and choose from the rest to fit your parenting style or your child’s life stage.
No cellphones at meals. Study after study says family mealtime is important. Parents should put their own phones away during meals, too.
No cellphones upstairs — or wherever the bedrooms are — at night. Start this “device curfew” an hour or more before bedtime.
No phones in the bedroom. Remember the old advice that computers should be in common areas of the house? Cellphones are little computers.
No phones in the bathroom. Yuck! This is unhygienic — and a huge time waster.
No phones until homework is done. Kids can turn phones in when they arrive home. If your child needs to text a friend about an assignment, they can do that, then stow it again.
No phones in the car. Ever notice how some of the most important conversations happen while you’re playing chauffeur to your kids?
No social media before your child is of age. Platforms such as Instagram say kids under 13 are not allowed. Use this to your advantage, or wait even longer, like until eighth or ninth grade.
No digital negativity. Teach your kids that anger and criticism should be expressed in person — or at least in a voice conversation.
Private accounts only. Private accounts, which are visible only to people your child (or you) approve, are a good transition for kids new to social media.
Don’t take the phone away. Worley makes the counterintuitive suggestion not to take tech away as a punishment because it just signals that it’s incredibly valuable. Use other consequences for correcting undesirable behavior, instead.
Shared passcode or monitoring. Some parents require their child to tell them their passcode, or agree to monitoring, and allow them to spot check their phone if they want the privilege of having one. If you do this, consider lightening up over time to give responsible older teens some privacy.
Pay for overages. If your child goes over your data limits, they must pay the overage fee.
Pay for the plan. Older teens with jobs can pay their own cellphone bills.
Elisabeth Leamy is a 13-time Emmy winner and 25-year consumer advocate who has appeared on such programs as “Good Morning America.” Connect with her at Leamy.com.
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