A wise psychologist once compared parenting to driving a car with a stick shift. Children need teaching, monitoring and direction — lots of it, he explained. They also need to be trusted and given opportunities to exercise independence. But lifting off the clutch while pushing down on the accelerator has to be timed carefully, just as giving children increasing control and independence has to be timed carefully.
Enter the smartphone. Jean Twenge touched off a national discussion in her recent report linking smartphone use among adolescents with dramatic increases in rates of depression and suicide. Some critics cautioned against singling out smartphones as the cause. Yet even her critics argue that we need to start grappling with “the complexity of young people’s digital media use.” With 8 out of 10 parents saying their teens have phones, it’s hard not to believe that smartphones are having a significant impact on teenagers’ lives.
After all, a smartphone that gives immediate, unmonitored access to texting, video games, pornography, social media and anything else the internet offers can be a lot for anyone to grapple with. For the emotionally reactive, undeveloped-reasoning, pleasure-seeking brain of an adolescent, a smartphone means even more to grapple with, not to mention the recent confession by Facebook’s founding president that social media was intentionally created to be addictive by “hooking users” on a “social-validation feedback loop” (aka “likes”).
There is a reason Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, strongly limited “how much technology our kids use at home.” Add to that list a host of other tech company executives like Chris Anderson, chief executive of 3D Robotics; Alex Constantinople, chief executive of OutCast Agency, and Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and Twitter, all of whom severely limit screen time for their children, don’t allow cellphones with data plans until their children are 16 and have a family rule of absolutely “no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever.”
But as Twenge argues, “ripping phones out of the hands of high schoolers” is not the answer. What we as parents really want is to prepare our children to regulate themselves, to have the internal wisdom and strength to appropriately use whatever technology lies ahead in ways that will strengthen them and others. The question is, how?
Tech executives seem to have at least part of it right. Parenting scholar Laura Padilla-Walker’s extensive research on how children internalize the values needed to self-regulate identifies three important practices. First, protecting children by “cocooning” them from potentially dangerous influences is important, especially for children under age 14. Second, “pre-arming” children by teaching and socializing them in values, while providing them strategies for dealing with specific situations, is critical. Third, “deference,” in which parents stand back as their children make their own decisions, is also important, especially after age 14.
Children benefit most when parents combine these practices — allowing teens to make their own decisions (deference) while talking to them about those decisions (pre-arming) and sheltering them from outside influences (cocooning) while talking to them about why (pre-arming). The power lies in the process of reasoning together — parents sharing values in open conversations, while youths share what they are experiencing in relation to those values. In the process, children’s moral reasoning is strengthened, and they sense they are actively choosing their values and behaviors. But figuring out when to cocoon, pre-arm or use deference takes careful parenting because timing matters and varies depending on the child.
Recently, a 16-year-old young man announced to his parents that he was trading in his smartphone for a flip phone. Since the start of high school when he first received a smartphone, he had been engaged in a “running commentary” with his parents about everything from the addictive nature of social media to the feeling that his phone seemed to “read his mind,” sending him ads for things he liked. But it was after witnessing the reactions of fear, reluctance, annoyance, even rage, when his peers were asked to turn in their phones for one class period that he asked himself, “I wonder what I’d think about in my spare time if I didn’t have my phone.” So he said goodbye to Snapchat, Instagram and group chat. In his mom’s words, “It’s no longer waiting for him any time he’s tired, bored or hungry.” And now he’s free to do different things in his spare time — freedom his peers, ironically, are jealous of.
Decades ago, anthropologist Dorothy Lee argued “all we can give our children is a compass” to guide them in holding on to that which is most precious in a drastically changing society. Smartphones are pushing us as parents to figure out better ways of doing just that.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.