A familiar scene
Digital devices outnumber people in middle-school teacher Jenny’s home. Jenny, her husband, and their two children — Josie, 14, and Nathan, 16 — each have a smartphone and a laptop.
On any given day, her 16-year-old son may take a break from college applications by pulling up a TED talk.
“He learns so much [online],” Jenny says.
Her 14-year-old daughter uses her iPhone for classroom group chats. She asks, “Can somebody help me with problem seven on the math homework?”
Jenny’s husband works for a telecommunications company, so their kids grew up seeing their parents use technology at home. On any given night, Jenny says, her husband might all at once be on a phone call, doing work on his laptop, and watching TV with his tablet next to him.
Jenny also follows a tech-reliant work-leisure hybrid routine after dinner: “I put my [TV] shows on, write emails on my laptop, and grade papers every night,” she says. The kids use their devices constantly from when they start their homework until bedtime.
It’s a routine Jenny and her husband are very comfortable with, because it’s the necessary reality to get all the to-do’s in a day done, and because her children’s digital use feels edifying, or at least responsible. Both use Instagram and Snapchat but not Facebook (they’re not allowed, but also, what teenager’s preferred social platform is Facebook these days?).
This constantly connected lifestyle has become the norm for families like this everywhere. However, the question of whether it’s healthy or not remains a bit of a mystery, eluding parents, teachers, and experts everywhere.
Is it still possible to find a healthy balance between our lives on and offline, or is constant connection part of our new reality? And how can parents make sure kids living in this new realm of technology stay safe online? Here’s a look at where things stand today.
Our new reality: Life in the digital age
Both of Jenny’s children got a smartphone when they were 11 years old, upon entering middle school. This has become a developmental milestone for preteens and screens: The average age today for kids getting their first smartphone is 10 years old, according to a 2016 digital trends study.
“We held out with my daughter. She was the last one in her peer group to get a phone. They would do these group chats and she wasn't involved,” Jenny says. “I felt like she was missing out on social interactions by not having a phone.”
Jenny estimates the breakdown of her kids’ smartphone usage at about 70 percent schoolwork and 30 percent entertainment and nonacademic information. She and her husband consider themselves pretty hands-off when it comes to monitoring what their kids do online.
“Neither of them are sexually involved on social media. I have friends who have programs set up on their phones to receive every one of their child’s text messages and Snapchats, but I feel like, if that’s my concern, my child shouldn’t be using it.”
Every now and then, Jenny or her husband will do a random check — “Hey, let me see what’s going on in this group chat” — but they don’t monitor either child much.
“We have talked a lot about online bullying and cyber safety, and at some point you have to trust that your child is going to make good decisions.”
The #struggle for balance is real
When it comes to our digital use, not all experts agree with the completely hands-off, constantly connected approach.
The key to managing children’s digital habits is understanding that life is about balance, says Corinn Cross, MD, coauthor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy statement on digital media. Cross helped create the AAP’s family media plan for younger children, and notes that not all media use is created equal.
She suggests asking yourself, “Is my child creating something, or just passively consuming media? Are they being social, or isolated?”
She acknowledges the numerous ways apps improve our functionality, and that not having your phone around is difficult. But the one rule she tries to follow is avoiding devices at the dining table.
Cross and her husband have committed to put their phones in a drawer between dinner and bedtime for their children. If Cross does have to respond to a professional query while with her children, she takes a specific approach.
“I acknowledge it’s rude, apologize, step away, and then return when I’m finished. Just acknowledging it seems to be a good way of showing my children I am mindful of it.”
Monkey see, monkey do: Being a good role model
Cross touches on a good point. Parents modeling mindful use of digital media is critical, underscores Laura Markham, PhD, of Aha Parenting, whose 21-year-old daughter agrees: “It’s the parents!”
Says Markham, “I am always stunned to see parents crossing the street holding their child’s hand and looking down at their phone. When the child gets their phone at 11, that’s what they are going to do. Everything you do right now, your children are going to do.”
Even for parents of older children, Markham advises setting aside your phone when possible when you’re with your children: “Put it at a charging station, out of sight. This is your time to reconnect with your child. If you have a job that you need to be present for all the time, try to reduce checking your phone to every half hour.”
If you model balanced phone and tablet use for your children when they’re younger, when it becomes time for them to be in charge of their own devices, they will already have internalized that balance, Markham says.
Developing healthy habits
Talking about healthy digital citizenship with your children early on is key to their developing it, says Markham. It’s easy to demonize digital use for all the ways that it makes people, and children specifically, less connected. But the reality is that for most of us, raising children in a digital world is inevitable — and the risk-benefit analysis of screen time is not black and white.
While there are lots of good reasons to limit screen time for younger children, preteens, and teens, the issue is complicated because so many areas of our lives also function better, arguably, because of technology. Think about news, directions, and ease of research for schoolwork, just to name a few! And for so many teens, communication happens primarily through texting and apps, so it’s less a matter of if and more of how those patterns will develop.
In the beginning of your child’s digital life, you need to be super present, Markham says. “Just as when you’re potty training your kid and you’re very involved in their bathroom habits, you’re very involved in their digital life when they first get a phone.”
Specifically, she advise that you draw up a digital contract with your child. Teach your child appropriate ways to use a phone. In the beginning, talk about it every night, with questions such as:
- What kind of texts did you get?
- What phone calls did you get?
- How did that make you feel?
- Did it distract you from your homework?
Don’t lecture — you’re not assuming the worst — but start a dialogue. Kids develop judgment as they reflect on experience.
When things go wrong online
Of course it’s important to trust your kids to make good decisions, but beware that when it comes to online use, things can go astray.
For Sonya, a Jacksonville, Florida-based compliance officer at a global bank, it became a full-time job to monitor her 15-year-old daughter’s social media activity a few months back. The teen signed a digital contract when she got her first phone at age 10. Last year, though, Sonya found a pornographic Tumblr and an Instagram post threatening violence against a teacher (jokingly, the daughter insisted), both of which violated the contract.
“[It was] entirely pornographic. All reposts from the internet. All ‘friends’ were teenage boys or mid-20s self-proclaimed sexually free women, who were actually perpetuating gender stereotypes,” she said of the Tumblr page.
Sonya was horrified. She forced her daughter to delete the account, and had a long conversation with her, reiterating that all sexual content transmitted or received by her was unlawful due to her age.
Where had her daughter’s digital life gone off the rails?, Sonya wondered. She beat herself up about it for a while, then sought support from some other moms.
“I realized that my daughter is reacting and behaving exactly the same way I would have at her age if I had the same access to information. It’s a whole new world,” she said.
Sonya acted swiftly. She took her daughter to Planned Parenthood for a conversation about contraception and safe sexual habits in general.
She still struggles with her daughter’s digital use — the teen regularly toggles Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vimeo, WhatsApp, and others — but continues to probe her regularly about it.
Raising Digital Natives, the blog of Devorah Heitner, PhD, offers advice for parenting children who have been digital citizens from birth. She addresses difficult situations like Sonya’s and other tricky areas, like discussing digital habits with other parents.
Of course, the internet itself is a fountain of resources about safe usage, with sites like NetSmartz, Internet Matters and Cyber Safe. But most experts agree that real-life discussions that evolve as your children age are fundamental.
Think of it as written in pen, not pencil
Lauren, a New York-based cable news exec, has struggled with finding that balance for herself, her husband, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 13 years. Like Cross, a rule they enforce is no phones at the table.
“My husband and I both work full time and are always on our devices for work. So at the dinner table, that’s the one place where everybody needs to just not be on their phones,” she says.
She tries to come home with all devices off for the night, and resolves not pick them up until after the kids’ bedtime. “I’m getting better … I used to walk into the house talking on my phone.”
Lauren’s older daughter, Zoe, got her first phone at age 11 when she entered middle school. It was a flip phone. Her parents told her, “This is because you’re in 5th grade, in middle school. This is if you need us. This is for emergencies. This isn’t for fun, this is not a toy.” When Zoe started 6th grade, she inherited one of her mother’s old iPhones. And this year, for 7th grade, she got a new iPhone.
She regularly uses texting, Instagram, and Snapchat, without time limits. But the family has talked about what is and isn’t appropriate, like talking about a teacher’s class. Lauren has told her, “If you wouldn't go into the lunch room and scream it out, don’t put it in a text. That text can be forwarded, screen grabbed, shared with anyone else.”
Cross underscores one of the most important concerns for teens online: “Things that are on the internet, you should consider written in pen, not in pencil. Things are always still out there, even if you delete them.”
Lauren has also instituted a “no bathing suit photos” rule, one that Zoe finds overcautious.
“We have arguments about that,” Lauren says. “She’s like, ‘I’m not ashamed of my body, I want to show my vacation photos.’ And we say, ‘No, that’s not appropriate.’ These girls do photo sessions wherever they go — that’s how they express themselves.”
But Lauren doesn’t want images of her daughter’s body out there. She wants more control of her daughter’s digital life. To help with that, she downloaded the app Life360 on her and her daughter’s phones. It tracks where her daughter is and other data on her phone. While technology can make it easy for kids to get into trouble, like in Sonya’s case, apps like this can also help safeguard them.
“If she has a low battery, I can call her and tell her to charge her phone so I can be sure to reach her later. When we were kids, we would tell our parents where we were going, but where were we really?”
Staying safe online: Tips for parents
Parents should talk with their children about cyber safety well into their teenage years. Keep an eye on the following issues:
Cyberbullying: Talk about what to do if your child sees it happening to someone else, and what to do if it happens to your child. For more information, visit stopbullying.gov.
Privacy settings: Learn to understand and manage settings on your child’s devices and apps.
Stranger danger: Cross’s advice to kids? “If you meet somebody online, if someone is important to you, you need to tell your parents about them. Even smart kids don’t understand that people aren’t always who they say they are. The internet has made the world easier for predators and there are people trolling to do this, and you cannot trust what people write.”
Caution when forwarding: Make sure your kids understand never to forward a message or image that someone sends them without getting their permission first.
Bottom line: You can’t “un-get” a smartphone
Diana, a visual artist in Princeton, New Jersey, has shepherded four children through the digital age. Her oldest child is 23 years old now. Her two middle children, 16 and 15 years, are in boarding school, where they manage their own digital lives and rely on their iPhones as their primary source of family communication.
However, her youngest, 13, is an anomaly. He’s the only student in the 7th grade without an iPhone. And that’s his choice, Diana says. He’s allowed to get a phone, but only if he pays for half himself, as his siblings did. He doesn’t want to spend the money. Plus, his friends and parents have phones he can borrow if he wants to play games or watch the latest SNL skit.
He says it impedes his social life a bit, but at this point, he sort of doesn’t know what he’s missing.
This underscores a point that his artist mother makes about the beauty of a kid not being tied to their device: “He observes a lot. Maybe he would even if he had a phone, I don't know. But he’s looking up a lot, not looking down. His orientation would have to change. Once you get a phone, you can’t un-get one.”
Liz Wallace is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who has been published recently in The Atlantic, Lenny, Domino, Architectural Digest, and ManRepeller. Her clips are available at elizabethannwallace.wordpress.com.