The decision to get your kid a phone is an important one. Don't make the decision lightly.
Smartphone in hand, your kid can access the entire world with just a few swipes and clicks. This is a huge responsibility. Here are some clues that your child might not yet be ready for the responsibility a phone brings.
Parenting tweens gets a bad rap. In my work helping parents and schools with kids and social media, I hear a lot of complaining about kids between 9 and 13 “growing up too fast,” being “immature” or “distracted.” My digital citizenship workshops with kids this age have given me a window into their creativity
Your kid's first smartphone is a big deal, and you don't want to rush into the decision. If you are feeling pressure from your child or other parents to buy him/her a phone, let me help you understand some of the challenges so you can make a thoughtful decision.
Kids deal with small conflicts every day - it’s part of growing up. But for today’s “always-on” digital natives, there are additional layers of complexity. Constant connectivity complicates their social sphere. Here’s how you can be a good mentor and teach conflict resolution to your own digital natives.
Pew Center for Internet and American Life is one of my favorite sources of useful data on how kids and families are using technology. In October 2015, they released a study showing that, (surprise!) kids are still falling in love, getting crushes, getting mad, getting even, etc.
So things haven’t changed…that much. But for those parents who worry about the new added complications of technology on dating life, I have some good news: at least in 2015, most kids were not actually meeting or “hooking up” with other people online.
It may feel like dating has moved entirely to the Internet, but according to the Pew study, only 8% of all American teens have met a romantic partner online. Though we see a few young people are using Tinder, Grindr and other “hookup” apps, these are supposed to be only used by those eighteen or older. Also, as one mother of a 9th grader told me, despite the racy implications, her son started a “traditional” dating relationship with a girl he met via Tinder. In this day and age, “traditional” meant that she drove her son to a bookstore café to meet the girl in person for the first time while she waited outside. Since then, this particular mom has met the girl’s parents, and have gotten together to go out to the kids’ basketball games and to one another’s school plays. While the kids live 20 minutes apart in different suburbs–and might not have otherwise met–their relationship itself does not seem different to his mother than if they had met at a swim meet or debate tournament.
Connection, Connection, Connection
Once teens or tweens are involved romantically, their expectations are surely affected by the availability of constant connection. This is directly in parallel with the changes in expectations in our own adult relationships. For example, my husband and I were dating before we had cell phones, and our expectations for being in contact (while far lower than these teenagers!), are still more frequent than they were before we had these devices with us at all times. Fully 85% of young people surveyed, expected to hear from their partner at least once a day. 11% expected to hear from their partners once an hour!
Teens are just getting used to all the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty and one of those is the infatuation with others their age. While in the past, flirtatious exchanges were confined to lunch and the occasional movie, today every couple can keep in never-ending contact via the phone in their pocket. When talking to your child, remind her that even though she can reach out to her crush at all times does not mean she has to. It’s okay not to text.
On the other hand, flirting, dropping hints, and trying to figure out how mutual an interest or crush is (age old preoccupations) has moved more into the digital realm. In the PEW study, 50% of teens reported that they used Facebook or other social media platforms to flirt or express romantic intentions. While they still may prefer to meet at school or through friends, social media is often times where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings.
Breaking up is Still No Fun
On the other end of the “feelings” spectrum, kids are negotiating both breaking up relationships and fending off unwanted attention in both the traditional ways (face-to-face, phone) and the digital realm (social media, texting, email). The PEW study reports that 25% of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable Perhaps, not surprisingly, Teen girls are more likely to receive uncomfortable flirting online with 35% reporting they’ve had to unfriend or block someone, more than twice as many as the 16% of boys who have had to do the same.
Talk to your kid
Ask your kid how other kids in their school and community ask other people “out” or to become involved. What are the local customs? If your are concerned about harassment, one way to open the door to conversations about these kinds of experiences is to ask your child if she or her friends has ever had to block someone for coming on too strong–or being too persistent. Make sure she knows that this behavior is unacceptable and that she doesn’t have to put up with it. If the behavior doesn’t stop by un-friending or blocking the perpetrator, contacting the school–or the authorities–may be necessary.
Most of what we know about dating for young people in the digital age should remind us to have empathy for kids…learning to deal with romantic feelings towards other is as awkward, terrifying and exhilarating as it ever was!
I just had a chance to have a conversation with Annie Fox, M.Ed, the host of Family Confidential: Secrets of Successful Parenting. I’ve been a fan of Annie’s parenting expertise and youth mentoring for many years, so I was honored to be invited to be a guest on her podcast.
Highlights: What Makes a Good Friend?
Annie and I spoke about how you can use social media as a locus for talking with your kids about friendships, what makes a good friend and how to deal with conflict and change in relationships.
I shared one of the ways I work with students in my student workshops: helping kids define “what makes a good friend to play online games with, or hang out on social media with?”
And how can parents help their kids be good friends in these interactive spaces?
How can we help our kids have high enough expectations of their peers?
We don’t want our kids to tolerate mean or thoughtless treatment as a matter of course…
Here’s the video (below). Just press the play button to view.
Some of the highlights: Find Clarity Through Boundaries
We talked about how helping your child identify positive boundaries is important.
When she has friends over, it is OK to expect the friend to hang out with you and not spend the whole time on the phone!
Another important boundary that we can help our kids express to their friends is that they can’t be available 24/7. Kids need to know that they are not being rude if they don’t respond to a status update or text when they are supposed to be sleeping or doing homework.
Or, as Annie pointed out, when they are out on their bike and prefer to ignore the buzz in their back pocket.
Finally, we discussed the perennial question: How do I know my child is ready for a cellphone.
Hint: It is not a certain birthday… Their skills, responsibility and need for independence (for example to travel around the community on their own) are the most relevant criteria.
It was so much fun talking with Annie. If you are on a roll an want to see all my podcast appearances ever, you can check them out here.
Please let me know your thoughts on these approaches to nurturing our kids social skills or share additional questions you’d like me to cover in a future podcast in the comments.
Distraction is a real issue with kids and tech. Having a plan can help mitigate the shortcomings of tech and help your kids find balance.
When I speak at schools in communities across the country, parents approach me with their concerns. In every community, technology as a distraction comes up as one of the most frequent—and urgent—issues that worry parents.
Recent data from iKeepSafe suggest that parents are right to be concerned, with 28% of teens reporting that their digital engagement interferes with schoolwork. Even outside the classroom, 44% of tweens admit that their digital pursuits take them away from other things they are doing, and 17% of tweens say that their digital engagement causes problems in relationships with friends and family.
Adults are hardly exempt from the distraction issue (myself included!), with 14% of adults acknowledging that they need to spend less time with technology. If this issue is challenging for adults, imagine how difficult it is for kids. Teens and tweens are in need of mentorship to help them navigate these challenges. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t ready to unplug completely as our digital engagement bring about significant advantages. We shouldn’t expect that our kids are, either. Let’s look at the issue more deeply.
This data is helpful as it breaks down some different scenarios for distraction/disruption. One of the biggest reveals, later in the study is how much teens and tweens online engagement can interfere with sleep. The is a huge issue, and can masquerade as distraction, as focus is difficult to achieve when you are exhausted!
The Optimists. Techno-optimists believe our minds are getting stronger because of digital technology. Freed from having to remember a ton of facts, we can create and link ideas together in new and interesting ways. Cathy Davidson argues that “monotasking” is not compatible with how our brains work.
The Cautionists. Techno-cautionists believe that technology is a distraction – that we are all in “The Shallows,” skimming and scanning and not truly reading. Indeed, before we all jump into eTextbooks, we should look at some of the evidence that format matters.
While there’s more research to be done, there are studies like this one that suggest that we retain information better when it’s in paper form rather than digital form. One question to keep in mind: Is this true only for people who already have a history of learning from paper texts? Or are there properties of printed text that affect memory—such as the physicality of turning a page and knowing where you are in a book? And how is this different for digital natives—our kids?
Annie Murphy Paul says (in research summarized in Slate in 2013) that groups of college students doing important homework checked their phones quite frequently. We seek out breaks in our work and the mental work of toggling back and forth is where we risk sacrificing our best abilities. It seems like only a few seconds of interruption, but it takes us a while to re-engage and get back into the flow. This “dislocation” is a problem as we may get fatigued from the effort of repeatedly bringing ours minds back to a task. Thus, one hour of homework can take 2-3 hours, yet be more exhausting—but the effort is not from the work itself, but the work of constantly re-focusing.
What this may suggest, is that for major work (a longer paper or a serious assignment), your teen or tween student should print out her drafts and proofread them on paper. Editing on paper may be better for many of us. Paperless sounds great and is very ecologically desirable, but many of us need to proofread our most important work on paper. Let’s dive a little deeper into parents’ biggest concern about distraction—homework.
Homework and Distraction
Does this scene sound familiar? Your child goes up to her room to complete her homework—perhaps on a school-issued iPad. Three hours later, she isn’t finished. Was she perhaps iChatting or Facetiming with her friends? Perhaps it started out about the homework, but then she got pulled into other topics. Was she listening to music and “had” to make a new playlist? Did she get distracted by someone’s post on Instagram and feel she was missing out on a social “hangout” that very instant? Or was she just “old school” daydreaming and not focusing?
Most kids in elementary and middle school shouldn’t have 3-4 hours of homework. The homework epidemic is a topic for a whole different book, but do check with your child’s teacher for guidelines about how much time they expect homework to take. If it’s taking way too long (or not long enough), it could be an indicator that there’s an underlying problem.
Many kids need to unplug for homework. Again, check with your child’s teacher. Not all homework requires online time, so offline time (or even turning off your home wifi) during “home study hall” could be an amazingly effective tactic. Imagine the conversations with your spouse and the dishes that would get done if you couldn’t check your email right after dinner!
What You Can Do to Help Your Kids
If you observe that your children are struggling with distractions when completing homework on a tablet or laptop, collaborate with your kids to figure out how to tame the distractions. Here are some strategies—find which ones are best for your family:
No double screening. Many students I’ve spoken to say their parents have rules about no double screening, but it can be a huge help. Though it requires some will power, put the other device away. Even if homework requires a tablet, for instance—stick to one device so you can focus.
Use tech to fight tech. Some kids will appreciate and enjoy “distraction blockers” like Leechblock and Freedom. While this won’t solve the problem on its own, it can help! As I type this post, I am blocking social media myself. My friends’ babies are cute and breaking news is exciting, but I need to focus.
Turn off the tech. Many parents find that simply turning off their home wifi really helps kids get their work done. Again, the Internet and connectivity is only a small part of most kids’ homework. Sure, they may be expected to be in an interactive space with classmates to post a comment, but that is likely only a tiny portion of their homework. Even a blog post as an assignment can be written offline and posted later.
Start unplugged to get plugged. If your kids say, “but I need to (collaborate with my friends, be online, use the Internet, etc.) to do my homework,” have them complete all the non-Internet homework first and then have them do the plugged-in homework. Impose a time limit or be present yourself so that they know that they need to finish.
Show your struggles too. Lastly, be open with your kids about your own experiences of distraction. Tell them your struggles—how it can be a drain on your productivity at work or that it feels tough to keep up with sometimes. Knowing this can be very helpful to them and make them feel like their own struggles are not “abnormal.”
Hope that you find these suggestions to be helpful. Our devices add a lot to our lives—both positive and negative. Digital Citizenship is about learning how to harness the positives and minimize the negatives. Distraction is not just about the devices, but how we use them. If you can get at the root cause of distraction, you will be in a much better position to mentor your kids on to fight through it and get their homework done!
Please share your most positive experiences with navigating distraction and any challenges in the comments! Do you have any best practices to share?
One of my favorite parts of Raising Digital Natives is presenting to parent groups, teachers and administrators. Frequently, parents and teachers share their experiences with me, so I learn as much as I teach. Being exposed to the concerns parents and teachers have about kids in the digital age is extremely informative and valuable to shaping the the ways Raising Digital Natives can help families and schools.
For educators, this list offers a helpful orientation to parent concerns that you may wish to address directly in your parent engagement communication. Here are some more ideas for how educators can respond to parent concerns. I’ve collected some of these common concerns from recent conversations with parents.
See if you identify with any of these concerns:
How much “screen time” is too much?
These days, it seems children never get a break from technology. Whether at school or at home, for work or for play, there’s always a screen in the room. But at what point do the harms of digital devices outweigh their benefits? When is it time to disconnect?
How much video game time is too much?
Kids love their video games. If left alone, many kids would have no problem at all spending an entire day building and exploring on Minecraft. While this type of gaming does have its benefits, most adults will agree that a day-long gaming marathon is excessive.
Are social skills at risk?
Sometimes, kids will choose playing with a computer over playing with their friends. While gaming can be social, is this damaging to their socialization? Does excessive screen time cause kids to miss out on learning how to deal with important social scenarios? How harmful is the lack of real, face-to-face interaction to their social development? In Chapter five of my book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World, I address the idea that empathy is the app and that kids can learn to consider the people they game with or share social networks with in thoughtful ways.
How do you ensure safety on the Internet?
It’s no secret that the Internet is chock-full of content that is not appropriate for children. Younger children may be unaware that this type of content—as well as more serious online dangers—exist, they also may not know how to avoid them. How do you protect your children and stay Web-safe without infringing on their browsing privacy?
Is traditional learning at risk?
When tablets replace notebooks in the classroom, opportunities for digital learning are arguably limitless. However, perhaps children do benefit from old-school, pen-and-paper techniques. By eliminating the traditional methods of teaching, are their developmental learning tools suffering in some way?
How can a child focus with so many distractions?
“But I need my computer to do homework!” Children can’t be good students without finishing their work, often on computers and/or tablets. But computers, tablets, and other devices are often multi-purpose. That means that they also have games and other opportunities to connect with friends. When tempted by things more fun than homework, how is it possible to let kids use technology but still keep them focused? In Screenwise, I share how to co-create solutions to distractions, while acknowledging that we ALL get distracted.
Can kids still find fun without technology?
Are the days of riding bikes and climbing trees entirely behind us? When video games and computers offer instant and easy distractions, what happens to the “traditional” ways that kids play? Can kids still independently find amusement, and can we trust them to find creative and productive ways to stay entertained?
What should parents of different age groups expect?
While many of these questions persist as kids grow, oftentimes, new ones arise. Every age group uses and understands technology in different ways. What particular issues should parents of a six-year-old be concerned about, and how do they differ from those of a twelve-year-old?
Does social media create “FOMO?”
A major cause of social stress for children and teenagers is the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO. Will the sad feeling of not getting invited to the birthday party be made worse by scrolling through the group selfies from the party on Instagram. How do we avoid this, and how do we deal with it if it arises? Kids talk about how to manage Exclusion in the Instagram Age in this post.
Is the parent/teacher connection at risk?
Rest in Peace, Red Pen. With tablets replacing traditional homework methods, parent involvement almost inevitably decreases. This is a surprise to some parents—something they weren’t expecting. When it’s harder to see teacher feedback on homework, how can parents bridge that gap with educators in order to continue to help their kids in the same way? I’ve also written some guidelines for parent/teacher communication in the digital age.
Getting Your Child a Phone?
Are you ready? Are they ready? Join my Cell Phone Boot Camp to get ready to support them through this important transition. Already got your child a phone and now wishing you’d been more prepared? This class will also be helpful for a family that has recently purchased a phone for their child (in the past year) and would like some help making it work.
Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!
As technologies evolve, so do the rules of etiquette. While you might be confident about teaching your kids etiquette in the real world, you may feel that it’s more of a challenge in the online world. It takes some time to learn the new rules, and they seem to change every time a new platform emerges.
As I mentioned in my last post, our kids are more isolated from adult communication today because so much of our peer communication takes place in a private, not public, setting. Email or text messages are sent and received out of “public” view, leaving fewer opportunities for kids to get etiquette cues from you—or other adults.
There’s another layer of complexity, too. Just because you exist in social spheres like your kids do, it doesn’t mean that the rules are the same for them as they are for you. So what can you do to learn the rules, together with your child?
Shrinking the scope
Where do kids learn digital etiquette? Though social media is a worldwide community (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), kids are getting their social training in much smaller communities (home, their friends, in the classroom). In many ways, social media at home or in-class blogs are ideal spaces to learn about social media etiquette, and can serve as great training wheels. It offers an accepting environment where a knowledgeable adult can help kids understand when they make communication errors, and help kids make repairs when they offend one another or miss important cues about how to respond. A community where people interact both online and offline is a great way to learn the new rules of digital etiquette.
“Friending” is a huge pressure for kids. This pressure can lead them into making poor decisions. For instances, they often feel that they have to agree to “follow” or “like” something, even if they don’t. Kids I’ve interviewed say that they are really difficult and uncomfortable to NOT accept a Friend Request or to ask a peer to take down (or untag) a photo.
What can you do to help? To open the conversation, you can say, “I got a Facebook request today from someone I went to high school with—but we barely even knew each other.” This gives you the opportunity to let your kids know that it’s OK to ignore the request—that they have a choice in the matter. To be more prescriptive, try giving them an informal limit on the number of people that can follow them initially. Instagram works well as a model for this. This will teach them how to be selective about their social sphere.
Sharing social circles
Surprise! Your networks are already connected. You have to remember—and respect—the ways that your own network indirectly corresponds with theirs.
For example, if your 8-year-old has a crush and you think it is cute, you can share the story offline with your best friend (out for coffee, for instance) without too much risk of embarrassing your child. But if you share the same story online (Facebook or e-mail), you risk wider exposure in unanticipated ways. Not only that, but your kids are learning from your interactions. Your mistakes today could become their mistakes in the future.
What can you do to help? Ask their permission to share. Whether it’s pictures of your kids or news about them, get their permission first. It shows them very clearly that they have control over their social space. Treat anything that enters their “Friend World” as THEIRS—not yours. Even oblique references to their social dramas should stay out of your Facebook feed. Even in person, this is a good rule. It pays to respect privacy. But the online world is more volatile, and you certainly don’t want your teen’s first bra or awkward crush to be community news.
Their friends are not your friends
I can’t emphasize this enough—don’t “friend” your kids’ friends. At least don’t initiate the connection. Nothing annoys kids more than this. They need to feel some control over managing these relationships, and you don’t want to take that feeling of control away from them. But what if your child’s friend “follows” or “friends” you first?
What can you do to help? Again, ask your child directly. This can be tricky territory, so give them some control over it. Keep in mind that their world is different from yours. Some kids change friends quickly, though they don’t always dump the digital connection—even when they don’t sit together at lunch anymore. Adults can relate to this, but the pace and churn of adult relationships is generally slower. Whether or not your kid allows you to be friends with one of their schoolmates will give you an indicator of how important that relationship is—and opens a door into their world for you. For instance, if your child tells you 6 weeks from now that you should “unfriend” someone, you have clues to her social life that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
Their teachers are not your friends–or theirs
Maybe this is obvious, but don’t “friend” their teachers, occupational therapists, camp counselors, or youth group leaders. These connections belong to them, not to you. For example, your child spends 6 hours a day with her fifth grade teacher. There’s little ambiguity that your child hold the primary relationship with her teacher, even if you are friends outside the classroom.
For the most part, your child shouldn’t be connected on social media with these folks either. Do you really want to kid to see everything his karate teacher posts to Instagram?
What can you do to keep boundaries clear and appropriate? The biggest complication is when who holds the “primary” relationship is ambiguous—when your child’s guidance counselor or teacher’s aide is already your friend. Just be cautious and thoughtful.
Another note about teachers and social media: Many schools get worried that parents are discussing teachers online, or posting anonymously on Great Schools or Rate My Teachers. Sites of this type can be useful for a more honest, parent-level opinion. But comments can drift towards the extremes. And “Rate My Teacher” is feedback that is totally out of context. Consider if you would want anonymous, public rating of your work.
The bottom line: take it offline. Especially when class placements come out—talk in person. And model appropriate boundaries and non-gossipy behavior for your children.
Being “friends” with your teen
The best way to help your child manage these issues is to be close to her—in the same spaces. But if your teen agrees to “friend” you, (or if you make this a condition of being on social media) take this show of trust very seriously, and be a good friend. Don’t make yourself too present. Don’t be seen or comment too often. Don’t share their news before they do (or at all.) Don’t be surprised if they find it “creepy” that you brought up something that they shared, even though it was public.
What can you do to help? “Like” the things you are safe to like. Or talk about it face to face. Find an opportunity to remind them verbally that you saw something on their Instagram feed, which will serve as a gentle reminder to your child that you are part of her “public.” As Danah Boyd points out, kids share to their own concept of a public, those readers, friends or followers that are on their minds at the moment—or the ones sharing a particular experience. The danger lies in that they are probably not considering their whole network every time they share. Lurk more and say less, unless of course something you see demands your attention.
Etiquette is always evolving to accommodate new communication technologies. In spite of this, we can mentor our kids to behave thoughtfully and empathetically online and offline.
Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. It’s important for them to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and patience.
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As parents or teachers we can get too focused on PREVENTING digital mistakes that can ruin friendships and reputations. We need to offer mentorship to our kids on how to repair things (when possible). We can model this in our own social media lives.
In my student workshops, I ask kids to brainstorm about how to correct such a mistake. A common problem is an “overshare,” where they have shared something too personal about themselves. Another is when your child shares a friend’s good news—or even a secret.
They know that they can’t put the overshare or secret “back in the box,” but kids’ instincts are to try to limit the damage. Quickly. In these workshops, they suggest taking down the offending post, deleting the picture, and apologizing, or at least letting people know that it was a mistake.
But how can they make it right? In many settings, from youth groups to religious schools to public schools student propose solutions that are concerning or ill-advised. For example, many kids will try to “spread some lies” to cover up when they’ve shared someone’s secret and that person is upset with them. Another bad idea: “I’ll let them get revenge.For example: I’ll let my friend spread a rumor about me. As a parent and educator, I find myself shaking my head! But, when embroiled in a social error, kids feel an urgency to take further steps to fix it “for good,” quickly.
These problem-solving techniques came from 5th and 6th graders who are just learning how to negotiate complicated social relationships. Many of these kids are just getting their first communication device, which adds another layer of complexity to the equation. It is important to look at where these kids are developmentally when we consider getting them a smartphone.
We have to help kids understand that rumors, lies, and revenge strategies just exacerbate the situation. Kids are focused on the immediate issue, and often have trouble seeing the larger picture. Sometimes when the parameters of trust in a relationship change, it takes time to fix—and your child can actually make it worse by trying to fix it in one gesture.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Adults can model the concept of repair for children. The best way is to offer a personal story of a communication gone wrong and how you solved it. For example, this one came from a parent at one of my workshops:
“I thought everyone knew Aunt Jodie was expecting a baby and so I said something about it on Facebook. She had every right to be mad at me—it wasn’t my news to share. I should have checked with her about how public her news was before I assumed. I called her to apologize — I feel really bad about it, but we had a good conversation and I certainly won’t do something like that ever again.”
We all make mistakes. Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. It’s important for them to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and patience.
Patience is the toughest thing to teach to our digital natives. Speed of communication is a virtue in today’s world, but it heightens the sense of urgency. Kids feel like they have to resolve things quickly, which we can understand. No one wants to feels the stress of a relationship that’s struggling. But repair is not always fast. It can take time. Teach your kids that it’s OK to take time and gain perspective.
This is an opportunity to teach them good life skills in general. Owning up to your missteps, apologizing earnestly, and returning to “being a good friend” is the best way to move past any issue. And of course, learning how to avoid such a misstep in the future.
Your own experiences with navigating relationships can be so helpful to your child. Remember that you have wisdom…and try not to panic when things go wrong in your child’s digital world. Some challenges are inevitable and learning to deal with them is part of growing up in the digital age.
Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. It’s important for them to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and patience.
When you put all these together, it’s easy to see why this is such a source of stress for families. Do you wish there was a course on this? After years of research and talking with families, I’ve created: Phonewise Boot Camp for parents to help parents get ready for this milestone. The course is an online class self-paced class for families who are getting their child a phone this year, or are in the first year with a phone and want to decrease conflicts and improve family communication about the phone.
This course will cover:
Assessing your family’s current digital situation
Planning and organizing your physical space at home to maximize positive outcomes
What social skills kids need to be successful with their phones and more.
Planning for boundaries around when your child will have access to the device