How to Set Smartphone Limits for Your Kids – Few adolescent experiences are as liberating as being granted a cell phone.
The bond I felt with my first phone (a Nokia 6610), bordered on covalent, and that was sans access to today’s veritable buffet of games and social networks—not to mention the internet at large.
Regardless of what you think it says about generational priorities, the accumulated data is clear: mobile access to the internet has become essential to the experience of being a teen, and the age when kids get connected is falling.
Put Your Teen (or Pre-Teen’s) Screen Time in Context
A 2016 survey from Influence Central found the average age for a first smartphone at a shade north of 10. Those phones aren’t merely being used for safety check-ins with parents, either. The same report found half of children surveyed had at least one social media account by the age of 12.
The proliferation of smart devices presents unique challenges for parents, and all that increased screen time can cause conflicts in the home. A Reuter’s article cites a third of families arguing daily about time spent on devices. But while watching a toddler expertly and intuitively manipulate a device before mastering language can be a little unnerving, it’s wise to not restrict reflexively. Instead, individualize your approach based on your child’s age, personality and individual needs.
For instance, if your kid asks to watch something educational, or falls in love with a game that encourages activity, your amount of allowed screen time may fluctuate.
Flexibility is vital for another reason too, because as kids grow, smartphones take on a heightened symbolic importance, to the point where cutting them off from their phone entirely could have larger consequences than you realize, including impeding their social development and identity.
Each Kid Interacts With Devices Differently
“For teens, phones or tablets are often ‘safety devices’ in more ways than one,” explains Amanda Lenhart, senior research scientist for the Associated Press, who has been researching the intersection of tech and teens for 15 years. “As a parent, if you decide to ground them from their phones, you’re disconnecting them from the information of the day.”
Because of that social function, Lenhart hesitates to use the term ‘addiction’ when it comes to teens’ preoccupation with devices, instead pointing toward new research that identifies the phenomenon as a “differential susceptibility.” Similar to how adults interact with a substance like alcohol, some teens moderate themselves, while others struggle to control themselves.
“The point of many of these platforms, the gamification of features, is to keep you coming back, that’s how they make money,” warns Lenhart, “so it’s up to parents to understand how their kid responds to something like that, and adjust their approach to shepherd their child to responsible digital adulthood.”
That journey requires different techniques along the way, so we spoke with parents across three age groups to identify the best methods to keep digital usage under control.
Melissa Frame, mother of two girls (ages 2 and 4), has already noticed a desire for more digital independence in her 4-year-old. “Now that she’s a little older, she’s interested in watching videos where adults unbox and play with toys,” she explains, “sometimes the people in the videos make their dolls do gross things, like poop or throw up. Seriously, wtf? So I supervise her video time closer than with my 2-year-old.”
Frame also keeps usage under control by setting time limits (she tries to keep it around 20 minutes per day) and incentivizing watching videos as a reward for good behavior. “Those videos mostly lack educational value, so I use them more as a treat.” She also seeks out cute videos she approves and recommends them for impromptu viewing if she needs to finish a task. “I’ll say, who wants to watch the baby shark video? That can often be enough to keep them from weirdo videos.”
Matt Mundy, father of a 6-year-old son and two daughters (3 and 4), also notes how important your own example is when you’re teaching young kids responsible device usage, “I try to be cognizant of how much I can get focused on my phone. It’s unfair and hypocritical for me to expect them not to use the phone if I’m on the phone.”
This means being particularly aware of fighting your own desire to use your phone during family time, or moments you want your kids to remain device-free as they grow older. “When we’re hanging out as a family, if we’re eating breakfast, I don’t really have my phone out,” says Mundy, “and before bedtime, when they’re settling down, we’re careful not to overstimulate them.”
Ages 6-12: Understand the Importance, Remain Engaged
As the aforementioned studies found, this is typically the age range when parents purchase a phone for their child, which means this is also when you may see your role shift from everyday regulator to periodic advisor.
Since his son is nearing the age, Mundy is mentally preparing for that eventual craving for a personal screen. “It is a decision I’m concerned about in the next few years. It’s a Pandora’s Box, but it’s also completely impractical for him not to have a phone.”
Late elementary school and early middle school are where the lines of social communities start to be drawn, and if you’re adding a cell phone to your kid’s role in that dynamic, bear in mind their interaction with devices will be regulated beyond the home.
In the domestic sense, once you’ve granted them their own phone, it’s an ideal time to lay down concrete ground rules and expectations. The more specific, the better, but be as consistent in your enforcement as possible: no phones during family meals at home, no social apps or games until homework has been completed, check-in texts when departing or arriving anywhere, etc.
While you’re determining your rules, make sure you understand what cell phone regulations their school is enacting as well, as those will likely also adjust with age. Suzanne Poppke is an educator who has worked on both sides of the elementary-to-middle school transition, where she’s witnessed the heightening importance of smartphones as a social tool.
According to Poppke, middle school is the age when kids’ reverence for online content becomes all-consuming, and she explains, “they discuss the digital world constantly. A lot of their social [in person] interactions revolve around online content. They idolize people they find through social media.”
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Therefore a middle school will typically have harsher phone regulations, which may affect your teen’s usage outside of class. At Poppke’s middle school, students registered smartphones at the beginning of the year and had to store them all day in a cubby. Such Draconian measures might lead to an increased desire to use the phone at home. Adjust your rules accordingly, while remembering the social value of the phone to your teen.
The current generation of teens is bound through cultural touchstones that are occurring online, which makes a connection to that realm vital to their social development and cultivation of identity. Consequently, teachers like Poppke use digital culture to forge friendships for new students, and keep her classroom engaged.
It’s a valuable technique for parents, too, as once that threshold of phone-as-social-tool has been crossed, regulation becomes increasingly more-difficult. Abide by your ground rules as best you can, but also invest more in educating yourself to the types of content your teen is consuming and how it functions in building their social selves.
You don’t have to scour the depths of their favorite YouTube channels, or obsess over their browser histories, but inquiring who their online heroes are, or asking them to watch a few of their favorite videos with you not only helps you have a pulse on what they’re watching, it validates the person they’re becoming online.
These services work across family PCs, laptops and devices, but they can be pricey. Alternatively, Google’s Family Link is free, but has come under scrutiny for letting teens 13+ lift restrictions themselves.
Tech-savvy teens are generally more likely to seek out ways to circumvent filters as they mature, and some filter features may prove too invasive for some (Qustodio lets you read your children’s text messages on an Android device), so be mindful that a service is never a substitute for your own awareness and involvement.
Observing and embracing your kid’s online identity is essential in guiding them to Lenhart’s vision of “responsible digital adulthood,” regardless of whether you impose restrictions by content, hour, or data. Emphasize that a phone is no longer merely a distraction or reward for good behavior, but a tool that will help shape the person they’re becoming.
Ages 12-18: Gradually Yield Trust, Schedule Off-Device Activity
The end of middle school and the beginning of high school is where the most difficult challenges present themselves, as kids are deepening and expanding their social identities, offline and online. By 12, a majority of classmates have scored their own cell phones, so peer pressure picks up for phoneless kids.
“At the beginning of 6th grade, my daughter started asking for one. Everyone in her class had one,” recalls Manny Bocchieri, whose daughter is now 14 and in high school. “We started with a burner phone for emergency calls, but every year the pressure mounted for us to get her a smartphone. She couldn’t take pictures with the burner. At 12, we caved and gave her an old iPhone.”
Middle school is a major time for community-building and learning how to identify as part of social circles. Teenagers become increasingly eager to parake in that outside of the confines of the home.
While relinquishing control, it’s still important to stand firm on some rules. Bocchieri mandates being able to follow all his daughter’s social media profiles and asks her to stop using the phone when the battery dips below 20%, for emergencies.
It doesn’t always work. Teenagers like exploring the boundaries of rules, and apps like Snapchat offer communication beyond what a parent can see, not to mention, teens are more attuned to new apps than you are, putting them a step ahead of filter services.
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Outright taking away phones for 12-18 year olds is difficult for two related reasons, according to Lenhart:
- It closes a social-emotional loop, which comes at a larger cost to your child the older they are.
- Teens come up with creative ways to circumvent their restrictions (using public computers, borrowing friends’ phones), so that they can continue to partake in their social interactions.
Getting your teen to engage offscreen is typically a more successful endeavor when the solution is proactive, not reactive. “If my daughter mentions a hobby that intrigues her, I double down on it right away to keep her active,” offers Bocchieri, “she wants to play drums? I’ll sign her up for classes ASAP and get some drumsticks in her hand.”
This is where tracking data or time usage via the device or a service can prove especially helpful. Restrictions may be harder to impose on older teens, but you can encourage them to augment their schedules with more active extracurricular options if time on certain apps starts to balloon.
If problems persist, other non-invasive solutions can be found in the hardware itself, or the carrier that supplies the data connection. Many Android models are more affordable and offer greater customization than their iPhone counterparts, while both Verizon and AT&T peddle prepaid plans designed specifically for teens, allowing parents to limit the amount of non-WiFi data available and put restrictions on time, texts and purchases. Be aware though: plans like these don’t limit the amount of data a device can consume connected to a WiFi network, so you may still want to use a monitoring or filtering service for devices at home.
Regardless of how many of the above techniques you utilize, the lessons won’t resonate as much if you’re habitually checking your own phone.
No matter the age, parents should emphasize the importance of off-screen time, especially during moments you want familial engagement most, like mealtimes. If you set a rule like no phones at the dinner table, make sure it’s one you abide by, too and one that you enforce for all your kids, regardless of their age. Keep the times you want to be device-free sacred for everyone.
If nothing seems to work, and stepping away from the internet’s all-consuming tsunami of content proves too tough for you or your kids, I’d be happy to sell you a lightly-used Nokia 6610.