Technology consultant and parent blogger Janell Burley Hofmann is the first to say that parenting in the digital age isn’t easy — she has different policies for each of her five children, who range in age from first grade to high school.
Hofmann's anxiety over giving her kids their own devices began with her 13-year-old son, Gregory, who is now 16.
“I was worried that the phone would become the most important thing to him,” Hofmann said. “Even more important than family.”
Hofmann’s concerns about a phone taking over her children’s lives are very valid. Past surveys of teens, like a 2012 study from messaging app TextPlus, have found that at least half of all teens describe their phones as items they simply can’t live without.
But the problem of screens taking over kids’ time and attention isn’t just in the hands of the kids, Hofmann says, it’s a problem for the entire family.
“While we celebrate all the ways we can make time from work using these tools, we need to be wary of how they can follow us to the soccer field, on date night or to the dinner table,” Hofmann said. “We need to be looking at our own behaviors with technology before we make policies for our kids.”
A new Pew Research Center study paints a picture of how attached to phones U.S. adults are. The study found that the percentage of people in the U.S. who own cellphones has nearly doubled since 2011 — jumping from 35 percent in 2011 to 64 percent in 2015. Nearly half of the Pew survey respondents — 46 percent of smartphone owners — said they “couldn’t live” without their phones.
California psychiatrist Dale Archer says there’s no point in parents trying to eliminate smartphones from their lives or their kids’ lives.
“It’s like having a security blanket. It’s gone from being a tool we would use periodically to communication to something that facilitates every aspect of our lives,” Archer said. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. What matters now is how we address it moving forward.”
Here are some tips from experts on how parents can control how much time their families spend on screens:
If parents don’t want their kids to get lost in their phone, Beverly Hills family psychotherapist Fran Walfish says they should make sure their attention doesn’t wander to the phone, either.
“A complaint I hear all the time, much more so in kids, is that their parents are constantly on their devices and they can’t get the full measure of their attention,” Walfish said. “People feel cheated when your attention is split (with a phone).”
Lay ground rules
Setting some rules for phones and devices seems like common sense, but it’s not easy for many parents, Walfish said.
“Parents need to present these privileges of these electronic gizmos to their kids by saying, 'We love you and we want to give you these goodies, but it’s a privilege,’ ” Walfish said. “Likewise, every increment in your kids that’s a demonstration of responsible autonomy and good behavior should be rewarded with more independence.”
Parents could also take a page out of Hofmann’s book and write up a contract, as she did for her oldest son. Hofmann highlighted the need for parents to explain to their kids that technology use is a learning process for everyone.
“You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it,” Hofmann admitted in the contract. “You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team.”
Set limits and stick to them
Limits, Hofmann says, should vary a lot depending on what’s most important to each individual family.
“It looks different for all of us based on our schedules and needs,” Hofmann said. “Ask yourself what feels healthy.”
Hofmann and Walfish agree that parents should collect their kids’ devices at a set time each day — for Hofmann, that’s 7:30 on school nights and 9 p.m. on weekends. When kids screw up, Walfish says parents need to stick to the agreement by following through on punishments.
“Any breach on the part of child of the boundaries equals parents retrieving all electronics until the parents determine an appropriate returning time,” Walfish said. “Of course, it depends on what the breach is.”
Find a balance
Archer says that as technology becomes more integrated into everyday life, a balance between time plugged in and time unplugged from devices is more important than ever.
“It’s very important for all of us to have time apart from our phones,” Archer said. “It’s scary at first, but when you actually do it, you find you’re talking more and there’s more connection that’s present. It’s just a little trick to remind yourself that the phone is a valuable tool, but doesn’t have to be with you 24/7.”
Again, it’s up to parents to model ideal behavior, including time spent away from the phone.
“Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you,” Hofmann wrote in her son’s contract. “Wonder without Googling.”