A smartphone’s not just for Christmas. Make a screen time plan before problems arise
Have you bought your child their first smartphone or tablet device for Christmas? It seems like a big step doesn’t it? That’s because in today’s world, it IS a big step!
They’re about to make the change from unconnected, to connected. And as well as opening up a world of opportunity and entertainment to them it also puts them in the way of a busload of risks.
A fantastic gift
If you’ve decided that your child is ready for their first smartphone, that’s great. There’s a reason they’ve been asking for one for so long already. It’s not necessarily just so they can play games or talk to friends. For many young people it’s an important social signal that they have taken a big step towards responsible, adult life.
It’s wonderful to give it to them. It’s become a modern milestone. An entry point into a bigger world. And by giving it to them you are showing that you trust them and recognise how much they’ve grown. As likely as not they’ll be over the moon excited, very grateful to you (at least for a while) and once everything’s set up you’ll probably lose them for the rest of the afternoon as they go off and try everything out.
Problems can occur though when both we and they don’t recognise what a big responsibility owning a smartphone really is.
If you provide no guidelines, rules or controls for the device, you’re likely placing too much responsibility on your child at once. This might not seem immediately obvious and many parents have only found it out the hard way. You’re trusting them to not use their device to the detriment of other, more physical or social activities (including sleep and homework). You’re trusting them to use it appropriately in the company of others (i.e. being present for the people they’re with). You’re trusting them to visit only age appropriate sites and use only age appropriate apps. You’re trusting them to behave and communicate in respectful, appropriate ways and to adequately process the rude, even abusive behaviour other people so often display in the comment sections of otherwise reputable sites.
Perhaps your child is ready for all that. Most definitely aren’t.
Having a plan before giving the gift
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it to them at all though. Instead, you need to make sure that you have clear expectations about the way that they’re going to use their device. You need to communicate those expectations clearly to your child. And you need to have any rules or restrictions ready that you consider necessary for making sure those expectations are met.
Now (before you give them the phone), is the right time to think about how you want them to use it.
One effective approach to coming up with your plan is to answer the following questions (preferably together with your partner and child (though if the device is a surprise gift you might need to do this after giving it to maintain the surprise)). Once the questions are answered you’ll have a clear picture of what’s expected and it’ll be easier to see what rules or restrictions might be necessary to make sure that your plan is realised.
- What times and places is it appropriate for our child to use their device? Similarly are there any times or places where they definitely shouldn’t be using their device?
- Do we want to allow only a certain amount of screen time each day? How much is reasonable?
- What types of content are we happy for our child to use? Do we need to vet new apps or shows?
- Will we allow our child to interact with others online, either via social networks and apps or via comment sections and multiplayer games? If so, how do we expect them to behave towards others in the virtual world?
For even more in-depth questions and conversation starters on these and related issues, you could try using Common Sense Media’s “Family Media Contract” or the American academy of Pediatrics’ “Family Media Plan” tool. Both offer a detailed framework for discussing responsible and safe technology use with your child.
Making the rules work
Whether written out or simply spoken, having agreed upon expectations and rules for tech use is a fantastic start. Children need such boundaries to provide them with a clear understanding of what constitutes appropriate behaviour. This in turn helps them to learn self regulation such that eventually enforcement of the rules becomes unnecessary.
That takes time though. It’s likely that when you first give your child the device you’ll need to put some limitations on it to ensure that the rules are kept to. This should absolutely involve some level of content blocking to stop them from inadvertently opening inappropriate web pages. For younger children it might mean scheduling exactly when they’re allowed to use their device. For slightly older children you might prefer to allow them a set amount of screen time per day and allow them the responsibility of choosing when to use it.
Whatever system you choose to adopt, be consistent, but also be ready to recognise and celebrate their maturity as it develops further. This might mean loosening the restrictions in place and hopefully eventually results in the removal of parental control software. Whilst products like Kidslox are necessary for a time, our ultimate aim is to teach your kids to control their own technology use, so that we are no longer needed.