Technology and Children

Q: Our 13- year old son just received a cell phone for his birthday and now we are realizing that maybe we needed to consider some rules before giving it to him. He has the phone constantly out at the dinner table, is distracted by it while doing his homework, and tries to keep it with him at night. What can we do?!

A: First off, you are not alone in this battle! Often children and teenagers, even adults, are glued to their phones. Before discussing how to address some of the issues that arise from a child having a phone, it is worth taking a step back and viewing the situation through a child’s lens. Children are starting to have cell phones at younger ages these days and those that do not have one claim all their friends have one already. Naturally, when a child receives his/her first phone, it is exciting! From that perspective, it makes sense that they want to use it whenever they can and it can feel like mission impossible to peel them away from it. With that said, too much screen time can be detrimental and some ground rules can help find a balance of allowing your child to reap the benefits of technology, but also connect with the real world.

Before establishing any rules, consider your child’s usage. Perhaps spend a few days or maybe even a week to pay attention to how often they are using their cell phone and when. By being mindful of this information, you can be more specific with your rules. After learning the amount of time they spend on their phone, consider when you believe your child should shut off their phone for the night and when it is appropriate from them to turn it on the next day. Weekday and weekend times may differ, so take a moment to consider that as well. Also, think about activities during which you do not want them to use their phone (e.g., during homework time, meals, family time, etc.) It is important that whatever time is decided upon stays consistent and that you try to be as specific as possible.

If you have not done so already, decide on a charging area that is not their bedroom (e.g., kitchen or living room). If there is concern your child will sneak their phone into their room at night, then perhaps the charging station can be placed in your bedroom. Every night they are in control of placing the phone where it belongs as part of their night time routine, which in turn reduces the back and forth of “it’s time to give me your phone.”

Now that there are some basic rules, what are the consequences for breaking them? Rather than deciding in the moment, which can lead to inconsistency and further conflict, determine this beforehand. It is also beneficial to share these consequences with your child when you are telling them about the rules, so the consequence does not come as a surprise. Phone time can also be structured as a reward, such as, “After your homework you can use your phone,” or for the weekends, “After you clean your bedroom and mow the lawn, you can use your phone,” thus phone time becomes a reward. One of the best ways to increase compliance is modeling what is expected. This means, you also do not have your phone out at the dinner table!

These rules may have to be revisited and revised from time to time because this is a learning curve for both you and your child. Also, as your child gets older, changing habits, interests, and needs have to be considered as they relate to the cell phone rules.