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Kids Using Smartphones

Perks and perils.

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Glued to screens on cellphones, tablets, laptops, and TVs, average American kids now use electronic media about 9 hours a day. Exposure to unhealthy TV, movies, music, and Internet content during childhood is linked to many detrimental health and behavioral consequences such as aggression, sexualization, anxiety, depression, obesity, drug use, and sleep disorders.

Smartphones allow kids to carry the Internet with them and make it possible to see and hear almost anything, anytime, and from anyone, including images, videos, TV shows, music, and movies. Smartphones also permit 24/7 communications with peers and strangers. And isn’t it frustrating when kids won’t engage in conversation or look up from their phones when you’re trying to talk to them?

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But these issues are the tip of the iceberg of concerns about youth using smartphones. Cyberbullying (bullying using phones or Internet) is now common and can severely harm and even claim the lives of victims who don’t get adequate help. Inappropriate viewing or sharing of disturbing, sexual, or violent media content has harmed mental health and even resulted in criminal records for youth.

There are, however, many ways that smartphone use can positively impact children’s lives. Texting and Internet including social media sites can expand their worldview and knowledge base, aid in completing school assignments, lead to making friends or finding support, and promote academic achievement and social justice issues.

So how can you help your kids keep the perks of smartphones while minimizing the perils? How can you monitor what kids are doing on devices, and is that invading privacy? When is phone use too frequent and how can you rein it in? Here are some guidelines that you may find useful. Many apply to Internet access via computer as well as on smartphones.

First, consider that kids, teens, and young adults are naturally impulsive and not great decision makers, no matter how intelligent or educated they are, or how responsible they seem. It’s not their fault—their brains are still developing until around age 25 in the areas of decision making, sexuality, and emotional and impulse control, which helps explain the strong influence of media exposure.

Second, view cellphone use as a privilege that comes with the responsibility to use without harming oneself or others, rather than a right. Discussing the benefits and risks of electronic media use, and the difference between healthy use for good purpose and unhealthy use out of habit or dependence will help kids make better media choices.

Third, management of youth phone use is essential. Wait as long as possible before giving kids phones, especially smartphones to prevent associated hassles, risks, and costs. Then when allowing a phone, use rules to help your kids harness the power of media while minimizing the harm. For example, require that kids look up and pay attention when you or others are speaking to them! Rules could also include no phone use during homework, meals, and while using other media, and—this is a big one—no phones in their bedrooms overnight. Many kids use them in the middle of the night, so have them park their phones with you overnight for better mood, performance, and health.

Fourth, monitoring youth access to dangerous ideas, things, and people is a crucial element of adequate parenting and this includes cellphone and Internet use. But many parents worry that monitoring invades their children’s privacy. Kids may use this argument or complain that monitoring reflects lack of trust to get parents not to monitor (saying, “Don’t you trust me?”).

Privacy in children, teens, and even young adulthood is limited by development and safety concerns. Even older kids need your guidance and actions to help keep them safe. So you could respond with, “Yes, I trust you, but you are still growing up. I’m responsible for you and when it comes to your well-being, I don’t trust other people and media I’m not very familiar with.”

How you monitor cellphone and Internet use greatly affects acceptance by kids. Here are some keys:

  • Be sure to tell kids beforehand that you will be monitoring texts, apps, social media, web searches, and sites visited.
  • Write down time and content-based rules for use, including apps and sites that are allowed. Keep expert recommendations for media content in mind, such as no violent content before age 8 and no news content unless co-viewed and discussed with adults before about age 11.
  • Gradually reduce monitoring based on aging and track record of sharing concerns of what is seen or heard and following the rules.
  • Know your kids’ passwords until they are out on their own, even if they are paying the bills with their work money or allowance.
  • Tell your kids not to write, post, or share anything that they wouldn’t mind you seeing.
  • Take away cellphones and Internet access for a specific time for violating rules or when you are concerned about people, groups, or material being accessed.
  • However, tell them you won’t take away their phones or social media accounts for telling you about cyberbullying or inappropriate content being sent by other people—a top reason for kids not sharing harmful happenings with parents is worry about having phones/Internet taken away.
  • Require that apps be downloaded by you with your secret password so you can thoroughly check them out. Fake apps can look like something totally different and benign while actually allowing access to dangerous content.

Lastly, many parents wonder if their kids are using their phones too often. Here are some warning signs of overuse in the form of questions you can ask yourself.

  • Could phone use be interfering with developing face-to-face social skills and physical play and activity?
  • Is it be interfering with getting chores, homework, or other work done?
  • Does my child have trouble talking with and listening to me because of a phone?
  • Do I find my child often looking at his phone when he is supposed to be doing something else?
  • Is the phone a means for my child continuing to access drugs or other dangers?
  • Does my child seem anxious or depressed after using it, or aggressive or angry when not able to use it? The latter are possible signs of addiction.

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, or you have other concerns, it’s time to evaluate content or reduce use.

We can’t always monitor when we want or need to, but luckily, there’s help available for controlling content access and amount of use. Check out a monitoring software service such as Forcefield, My Mobile Watchdog, or other that can support your media management and monitoring plan.

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Always approach interventions out of concern for their welfare and compromise when you can. Don’t fail to act out of fear of their resulting anger: that is a warning sign that you have lost ability to influence them in healthy ways and need more parenting advice. They’ll appreciate your efforts when they’re grown and will know you cared enough to try to do what was best for them, especially if you also have fun sharing feel-good media together.

More from Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.
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