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Kids Have New Phones? Strategies for Families

Parenting Advice from a Pro

My twin 12-year-olds received phones for Christmas, and it’s clear that we need to establish some rules. Do you have general guidelines to help keep them from becoming addicted – like their parents and so many people already are?

Before looking at some general guidelines, it may be helpful for you to ask yourself what you want to teach your children about phone use. How do you want them to learn to use phones? You point out in your question that you are concerned about addiction, so ask yourself: What does non-addicted behavior look like? Is it a person who has space from their phone regularly? Is it someone who always makes eye contact with people in a room instead of looking down at a screen? Is it being able to go to sleep at a healthy time? Think about what that picture of healthy phone use is for your children. Get as specific as you can and then write these things down. 

Being intentional about what you want to teach about phone use will help guide you in setting limits that you will be able to follow through with for the long term. It will also help you model these behaviors, which is just as important as the boundaries families set for kids. 

Here are some things to consider when it comes to guidelines for phone use in adolescence: 

Involve your children in the conversation. 

You will have some non-negotiable boundaries when it comes to phones, but it is helpful to involve children in the decision-making process as much as possible. You will improve your relationship with them and increase the likelihood of buy-in from them, which means fewer power struggles as you enforce limits. Try something like this: “These phones have been so much fun for you guys already, and I’m happy you enjoy them. It’s time for us to decide on some rules about when and how they are used. I have some thoughts. What ideas do you have about this?”

Always prioritize safety. 

With a smartphone, adolescents have the ability to access almost anything in the world. With that power comes significant risk. It is a parent’s job to monitor potentially unsafe behavior on devices. Discuss with your children who they can interact with via text and on social media. Ask questions and regularly check who they are engaging with. Educate your child on Internet safety rules and set clear expectations about how they spend their time online. The possibility of child sexual abuse should be discussed with your kids; predators regularly use online avenues to engage with minors.  

Decide when phones can be used. 

Are phones allowed during meals with the family? Before or after homework is completed? Should phones come out during school hours? Be as clear and specific as you can about time boundaries. For example: “On school days, you may use your phones when you get off the bus until we have dinner at six o’clock. If homework is complete, you can have them again from seven until eight. After eight o’clock, they will be turned off until the next day.” 

I recommend that kids do not have access to phones overnight. Most of the things we don’t want pre-teens doing on their phones happen after they head into their rooms for sleep. You wouldn’t let all their friends hang out in their bedroom all night every night, so don’t let them communicate with them all night on the phone. In addition, nighttime access to smartphones can be a major contributor to sleep disturbance in adolescents. 

Go into phone detox mode as needed. 

It is okay to take a day, week, or a month away from phones if your children and family need it. You may set expectations with the best intentions and notice over time that they have eroded. If this happens, taking a day or multi-day break from phones to reset and re-evaluate boundaries can be useful for the whole family. 

If all of this feels complicated or hard, it is because both of those things are true. We are the first generation of parents to have pre-teen children with phones in their lives, and we are all learning as we go. Trust your instincts about how phone use is impacting your children and give yourself permission to change course as needed. These devices can be awesome tools for creativity and connection. They can also exert negative influence if left unchecked. It is our job as parents to set boundaries for safety. It is the adolescent’s job to push against boundaries, ask questions, and seek independence. Expect the push-back and validate it when it appears. Try: “It makes sense to me that you don’t like the restrictions. I get it. You are allowed to be mad about that. It is my job to keep you safe.” 

Discussion and setting limits around phone usage are likely to elicit big emotions in pre-teens. You want to invite the discussion and empathize with the feelings your kids express. By doing so, you set the tone for ongoing dialogue and connection with them. If children know they are being heard and understood by their parents, they are much more likely to continue to come to you for help and support – something we really want adolescents to continue to do. Like every other discipline moment with our children, it is all about honoring our relationships with them as we teach, guide, and set boundaries for safety. 

Lucy Block Rimington, LPC is the clinical supervisor of the family support program at Greater Richmond SCAN. She has worked as a clinician with children and adults for fifteen years in a variety of private and nonprofit settings. Lucy lives with her husband and their three young children in the Richmond area.
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