As a therapist who treats teens I’m noticing an overwhelming rise in the number of parents who come into my office and declare, “I am losing the battle of the iPhone,” or, “I have no idea how to parent my teen around social media and the Internet,” or “No matter what I do my teenager won’t look up from their smartphone!”
With increasing frequency parents are facing the dilemma of how to help their pre-teens and teens manage social media, smartphones, and the Internet. I play an active role in helping families navigate this conflict. I have prepared five steps for parents to follow when parenting teens on issues surrounding the Internet, social media, and smartphones.
Tip 1) Before beginning a conversation with your teen take the time to understand what smartphones, social media, and the Internet mean to this generation of teens.
When parents come to my office they often complain they feel disconnected from their teen because their teen is “always on their phone.” I remind parents that teens are in the throes of establishing their personal identity and independent self. As I ask parents to reflect on their own teen years I often ask them:
“What was the one thing you had as a teen that allowed you to see your friends, go places without your parents knowing, interact freely with someone you had a crush on, or obtain substances that your parents didn’t know about?” Without fail parents always say the same thing…their car.
Smartphones and the Internet are the cars of this generation of teenagers. They allow teens to establish connections with friends, create identities outside of their family, and gain independence.
However, unlike the car of generations past, today’s teens can do all of these things while sitting at the dinner table, doing homework on their computer, or babysitting their younger siblings.
Before parents make the unilateral decision to take away their teenager’s phone I encourage them to understand what the phone means to their teen. The smartphone is their connection to the world outside of their family. Your role as a parent is not to protect them entirely from the world but rather to help them to interact and adapt to it in a way that promotes strong boundaries, healthy communication, age appropriate relationships, and independent thinking skills.
Tip 2) Start talking about smartphones, social media, and the Internet when your children are young.
The time to talk to your child about smartphones, social media, and the Internet is not when they get their first phone. The time to start talking about these topics is when your kids are young.
Earlier this week I was eating breakfast at a restaurant in Santa Monica. As I sipped my coffee, a toddler teetered over to my table stuck her tiny finger on my iPhone and happily exclaimed, “phone!” As she reached up and tried to pull it off the table her mother came over and scooped her up. This little girl knew not only what a phone was, but also how to engage with it. The time to start talking to your kids about phones, social media, and the Internet is right now.
When kids are young take the time to explain, in age-appropriate language, what a smart phone is. You can say something like, “This is a device mom and dad use to connect to our work, our friends, and our world. When you have demonstrated to us that you are ready to connect safely with these things we will consider getting you a phone too.” Set a precedent even with young children that interacting with phones and social media is something that requires thought, responsibility, and integrity.
Tip 3) Be purposeful about how and why you are giving your teen a smartphone.
In a world where teens are growing up surrounded by technologically literate peers it is imperative that they learn to communicate through technology. Throughout their lifetime they will be asked to continuously master new technologies. Your role as their parent is not to stop this process, but rather to help your teen learn to interact with technology in healthy ways. Thus, I often suggest that parents give their teens phones. However, what is important is how you give them this tool and helping your teen to understand why you are giving it to them.
When you finally decide to give your teen a phone, I suggest doing the following:
1) Take time to learn how to use the apps your teen may come in contact with. If you don’t understand the apps your teens are using you cannot expect your teen to respect your boundaries around their use. If you are not technologically literate then schedule an appointment at the “Genius Bar” and have someone at the Mac store teach you how to use SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.
2) Design and implement family rules and boundaries to help your child thrive in the world around them. Just like you would set ground rules for using a car or being out past curfew it is important to set ground rules for phone use and slowly adjust them over time. These rules vary greatly from family to family. Although you should adapt them to your needs. The following are a few examples I often suggest:
- Have a “tech free zone” in the house. This is one room of your home that doesn’t have any technology. Some parents make this every bedroom. Oftentimes the families I work with create a “phone hotel,” or a box where all devices go after a certain time of night…including parents’ phones!
- Don’t expect that your teen knows what proper adult etiquette is around phone use. Teens today have the ability to mentally transfer between technology and the outside world much quicker than adults. They are growing up in a generation of technologically connected peers. Thus, if you expect your teen to follow the social norms of their adult counterparts it is your job as their parent to have a conversation about what this looks like in your family.
- DO NOT give a smartphone as a gift. As a parent, you are paying their monthly bill and assuming liability for things your teen posts on the Internet. Giving your teen a phone as a gift signifies that it belongs to them and that they alone have complete control over it. I suggest giving your child a phone as a “tool.” Parents should explain to their teen that since they are a minor you as their parent are responsible for any legal issues arising from the teen’s online behavior. Praise your teen and let them know that they have demonstrated maturity and trust and that because of this you are providing them with this tool to connect with their friends.
- As a family, have a conversation about how much or how little access you will have to your teen’s passwords and website use. This should be decided before buying the phone. Parents’ access to private material should vary and decrease with age. It is not your job to monitor your teen’s phone forever. However it is your responsibility to slowly provide your teen with more responsibility and trust so that they leave your nest with the ability to effectively manage technology without any help from you. The only way to do this is for you to have trust in your teen and to demonstrate more and more trust throughout high school.
Tip 4) Reflect on your Technology Use Before Punishing your Teen.
I am surprised by the number of parents who constantly check their phone in my office while simultaneously complaining to me about how often their teenager uses their phone. Before you consider reprimanding your teenager about using their phone ask yourself the following questions:
- How many times per hour do I check my phone?
- Does my phone ever prevent me from connecting with my own friends?
- Have I ever checked my phone in the middle of a conversation with my child?
- What did I do as a teenager to zone out my parents? Is this similar to what my teen is doing to me?
- How late at night do I stay on my phone?
- How often do I respond to work emails using my phone while I could be watching their soccer game, having a conversation on the couch, or just spending time with my child?
- Do I have good boundaries between work and home, and how does my phone use play into how firm or lose my boundaries are?
- Do I text/talk and drive around my kids?
- Do I ever watch explicit material on my phone or laptop? Has my teen ever seen me doing this?
- Do I ever text or respond to emails at times when I could be connecting with my teen? (examples: in line at Costco, in the car, or at home)
You cannot expect your teenager to have healthy boundaries around smartphones, social media use, and the Internet if you do not model these boundaries. I often suggest to families that they come up with a set of Family Values around technology and that all members of the family adopt this set of values. I encourage parents to involve their teen in this conversation and ask them if they have ever felt disconnected because of something their parent has done. Here is one example:
- Family Values around Technology:
- We deeply value our family bonds and the quality time we spend together. Thus, we work to the best of our ability not to let our smartphones get in the way of our conversations, fights, hugs, laughs, or special family memories.
- We turn our phones off at _______ to help us get a good night’s sleep so we are relaxed and refreshed for the next day.
- On Saturdays, we all leave our phones at home for at least 3 hours to do something together as a family.
- If we feel like one of our family members is ignoring us or disconnecting during a conversation we use the funny code word “elephant feet,” which roughly translates to, “Hey ______, get off your phone. It hurts my feelings that you aren’t listening to me.”
Tip 5) Be Patient, Continue to Adapt, and Keep the Conversation Open.
Technology and its use by families evolves quickly and sometimes without recognition. The ways that you and your teen choose to navigate technology will change and adapt over time. However throughout this process it is imperative to keep the conversation open and honest. Spend time checking in with your teen about the role technology plays in their life and how they feel they are managing it. After all, your child is growing up in the most technologically savvy generation in human history. You never know what kind of wisdom they may have around the topic.