Two recent articles about the dangers of cell phones to kids made me want to channel my inner Luddite and destroy every screen in my house.
The first was Sloan Ryan’s “I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned” detailing her undercover work exposing the tactics of child predators. The other was courtesy of Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa: “When 6th graders can access rape porn on their smartphones, school becomes toxic.” The title tells you everything you need to know about what her middle school daughter has experienced.
Regardless of the fears these experiences raise, however, my role as a parent is not to ensure my kids are happy and protected from every possible harm. My job is to train them to be self-sufficient warriors.
Parents are best positioned to know exactly what medical treatment, school environment, and technology each individual child is capable of managing at each stage of his or her development. Involved, engaged moms and dads are the best answer to nearly every challenge currently facing our nation.
So with cell phone training, my husband and I follow the same model that we use for any other task that demands a thorough education, whether it’s doing laundry, managing money, or testifying to our pro-life convictions:
Step 1. I do, you watch.
Step 2. I do, you help.
Step 3. You do, I help.
Step 4. You do, I watch.
By the time they are in middle school, your kids should have seen you use your phone well (Step 1) both in how often and what you’re looking at (if you’re worried about what your kids will see if they grab your phone, you need to make some changes). Your kids should also have “helped” you use your phone (Step 2).
When I’m driving, I dictate texts and then my kids will edit out all the ridiculous typos before sending. The “helping” means that they have a better idea about text etiquette, when it’s better to type and when it’s better to call (hint: no confrontations over text). Even “helping” with online searches such as recipes for “cupcakes” may return results that allow me to (calmly if possible) explain how ubiquitous pornography has become.
When you provide them a phone, your kids are now in step 3: they are “doing” and you are “helping.” As parents with two girls, grades 8 and 11, and two boys, grades 4 and 6, my husband and I have decided that sixth grade is the threshold where Step 3 should be considered. For our girls, sixth grade came with phones that didn’t have Internet access. These phones were limited to texting and the “Find my friends” app so we knew their location.
After several months we allowed them to use Wi-Fi at home in common areas. A year or two into Step 3, we allowed one or two social media accounts that link to our email addresses in order to monitor their activity. Now with our 11th grader, we are fully engaged in Step 4: she is “doing” and we are “watching” (mainly hilarious Tik-Tok videos).
I am the first to admit that my kids have not had the best modeling from my screen use. When you’re deeply involved in a church community, managing four busy kids, and running a non-profit organization, there are a million legitimate reasons to be staring at the phone throughout the day.
My kids don’t know when I am being a productive wife/mom/director and when I’m mindlessly scrolling. It all looks the same to them, and I have been honest with them about my need to limit my screen use. Thankfully they have a better example in their father of screen moderation.
When you’re talking about cell phone and especially social media use, training includes everything from how to interact graciously in posts and comments, how to disable locations on social media apps, showing examples of how predators reach kids through tech, cautions against oversharing (don’t tell everyone everything), encouragement to be authentic by not curating the “perfect life” online, and reading studies with them about the correlation between screen use and teen depression.
This training also requires revoking the phone when used improperly. While we do use some internet filters, building the filters into your children so they can identify harmful or dangerous content on their own is infinitely more important.
Will things be different with our boys? Highly likely. We’ve noticed that both of them tend to suffer a significant media crash even if they’ve only watched a 90-minute movie. Even a half hour of Minecraft doesn’t do us any favors at bedtime. Will we have to modify our Step 3 threshold for our sons? Unknown. All of our kids require and deserve individual evaluation and specific-to-their-needs training.
I have friends who are good parents whose children were consumed by their smartphones, and looking back, they all say the phone was a mistake. There are some kids whose entire social network is virtual, and thus they never leave their bedrooms nor have face-to-face interactions with peers.
Others report their daughters are regularly sent “dick pics” or asked for nudez. Many parents have teen boys who are already seeking porn online. Those horrors are real. Parents need to be constantly vigilant for them, and respond appropriately.
But the horror stories don’t mean that every phone dooms every kid to disaster. Rather, these stories should serve as reminders that in addition to training our kids how to use their phones, we also need to be encouraging them to develop faithful, real-life relationships with peers.
We must be the first to talk to them about what to do when someone wants to sext. We need to be discussing the drug-like effects of porn on the brain. And we need to require they are engaged in meaningful off-line activities like sports or service projects and helping around the house.
So far, our kids are (mostly) using their phones rather than being used by their phones, but we have many years of active parenting ahead so the jury is still out on our success. There’s always the possibility one of my kids demonstrates he is entirely incapable of managing himself with any access to a smartphone.
Maybe that is the position you find yourself in, but the good news is, you know your child best and if you’re connected to him, you’re going to make the right call. Pun absolutely intended.