The gift of a smartphone: are you ready?

The ironic thing about smartphones is that these days, they are almost very rarely used to make a phone call. Instead, these pocket-sized computers are used for texting, taking pictures, participating in social media, playing games, playing music, providing directions, and so much more. With over 80% of teenagers in the United States owning a smartphone, it seems not to be a question of “if” your child gets a cellphone, but rather, “when”.

Because this influx of technology is still relatively new to our society, we are still learning how to responsibly manage it. And while we parents may get on our high horses about teenagers and cell phone addictions, you only have to look at a crowd of adults in public in order to see that the apples have not fallen all that far from the trees. But here’s the thing: technology isn’t going anywhere. Demonizing it only perpetuates feelings of guilt and fear, and leaves both parents and children confused about how to manage such an incredible tool. 

Rather than boycotting cell phones, we must instead approach smartphone ownership with confident and empathetic guidance in order to ensure that our children are well-equipped to manage such a useful and mighty tool. Is your child ready? Are YOU ready?

When introducing a smartphone into your child’s life, consider the following:

1. Start with a conversation

Before a phone finds its way into your child’s hands, sit down and have a family conversation about the importance of responsibility when owning a device. Don’t shirk away from some of the uncomfortable topics. Talk about content on social media, the weight of texting (especially sexting and sharing photos), accessing content on browsers and apps, as well as the possible ramifications of what we share online. 

Having a smartphone often coincides with new freedoms, such as going out with friends alone, exploring while on trips, taking public transit and walking home from school or friends’ houses. One way for you to stay connected with your child as he or she spreads their wings is to use a free location-sharing app, such as Life360. In your conversation, outline your intention with using this app, as well as how your family will use it to remain in touch throughout the day. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about privacy and child development and how a location-sharing app can provide freedom and connection at the same time. This is a great place to start before having this conversation. This open and honest exchange will lay the foundation for future communication surrounding your child’s online life. 

2. Make nighttime a screen-free time

We know that blue-screen light can wreak havoc with sleep, but why? Our circadian rhythms – the natural cadence of sleep and wakefulness – is dictated by our exposure to the sunlight. The glow of blue light waves stimulates attention and mood, thus resulting in the device-user feeling more energized and able to stay up for longer periods. Blue light also reduces the production of melatonin in the brain, a chemical responsible for sleep. Using devices at bedtime can result in a sleep-deprived child, who is then at risk for emotional dysregulation, illness and an inability to focus. When giving a smartphone to your child, set boundaries around phone use at bedtime. One tip is to create a charging station outside of your child’s bedroom – such as in the kitchen – where it can remain docked overnight. Another option is to limit screen time, either through an app or through a router that has downtime during certain hours of the night.

3. Consider yourself a “smartphone role model”

Our children learn far more from what we do than what we say. If we are preaching that our child needs to limit his or her screen time, then what does it say when we’re stretched out on the couch for hours, playing our word games or lazily scrolling through Instagram? Or what if we’re constantly mumbling, “Just a minute…” as we quickly send a text or email to work? Your teen will smell the hypocrisy from a mile away. 

Human contact is the most important and is in its purest form when you’re able to interact person-to-person. This is especially so during times of the day when your child’s attachment needs will be highest – such as right before bed, first thing in the morning, before heading off to school or to activities, and when being picked up from those activities. This connection is also incredibly important right before and after any big thing that will require a lot of your child’s coping reserves. In these moments, be conscious of whether your phone is putting up an invisible barrier between yourself and your child. When your child comes into the room, put your phone down. Make eye contact and invite conversation. Refrain from leaping up the minute your phone dings with a new text or email. Establish a “no cellphones at the dinner table” rule – for ALL family members. Set some healthy boundaries for yourself and stick to them. Your child is watching and learning from you; you are setting the tone for healthy device management in your home.

4. Keep communication lines open

This step is probably the most crucial of them all. Your child is going to have questions, concerns, and the occasional giggle about the content that he or she is encountering online. As a confident and capable guide, you can help to steer your child through these experiences. Take an interest in what your child is doing on his or her phone. Ask questions about apps, games, and friends that he or she is texting. Refrain from being reactionary or judgmental about your child’s phone usage (i.e. “You’re always on that stupid game.” or “These YouTubers are nitwits. THIS is what you’re watching?” or “What do you guys do in that group text? Just send silly memes to each other?”). Instead, work to build a bridge between yourself and your child, so that some of the more important topics – such as when a friend sends a hurtful text, or if a child is confused or worried about something he or she has come across online – become a natural extension of the tech conversation that you and your child have already established.

A cell phone is a tool and what matters is how you and your child manage it. Would you hand your child a power tool and send him off with only a reminder: “Be careful!”? You should treat a cell phone with the same respect. Establish boundaries and uphold them with a firm but kind approach. Ask questions, take an interest, and learn more about what your child is absorbing through his phone. Use apps to research, stay connected, take exciting pictures, or edit videos. And last of all – you are your child’s first teacher: when you demonstrate healthy phone habits, you are teaching your child to do the same.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe joined Life360 in March 2019 as a Family Expert to help further the company’s mission of keeping families safe and connected. Dr. Lapointe is an Author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist.

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