Despite best preparations for introducing a smartphone, coping with the realities of daily use can turn out to be challenging for many families, and changes in children’s lives may generate new issues that didn’t exist before. How can children be guided effectively to engage with their smartphones in healthy and safe ways? How can they navigate conflict in uniquely online social situations like large group chats? What should parents and caregivers do if problematic usage develops?
Children and Screens convened a panel of media experts, child safety advocates, parenting coaches, and communications researchers to address how to head off difficulties with youth smartphone use. (Please see also our companion tip sheets, Smartphones: Assessing Readiness, and Smartphones: Preparing for Healthy Use.)
Prioritize quality sleep – keep phones out of bedrooms
Quality sleep can be hard to come by for a child or teen with a phone in the bedroom generating tempting notifications all night long. “Especially for middle schoolers and elementary schoolers, very few kids that age have the self-regulation to put away a device at night on their own independently and be reliable about that,“ says Devorah Heitner, PhD, author of Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World. Even for older teens, “think about what they’re like when they’re in love for the first time, and think about whether you want the phone to live in their bedroom.”
Elizabeth Englander, PhD, director of Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center; Professor of Psychology, Bridgewater State University, concurs, citing evidence from a qualitative research study which found that the most effective place for kids’ phones to live and charge overnight was in the parent’s bedroom.
Help set boundaries with peers
It can be difficult for some children to hold to family rules and boundaries when around peers who may be using their devices with more permissive use rules. Heitner suggests parents and caregivers can help children develop strategies in advance for navigating boundaries with peers in less stressful ways. “Kids feel a lot of pressure to be accessible to their friends all the time,” says Heitner. “One thing you can do, especially if you have a kid who’s feeling that stress, is give them some language they can use with their friends, like boundary-setting language, such as ’Oh, I really can’t do that until after homework.’ Or ‘I need my beauty sleep.’
Discuss conflict resolution strategies
Group chats can sometimes become a “toxic nightmare stew,” says Heitner, and providing strategies for coping with difficult situations in peer group chats may be one of the most helpful tools parents can provide to children who haven’t fully developed social skills.
Heitner suggests reminding them that it’s always okay to just leave or disengage when things go awry online – “Whether that’s someone being mean to you on a server-based game, whether that’s a group text, or whether that’s comments on your social media. What I find when I talk to kids in schools is that a lot of them don’t know that it’s okay to just leave a situation digitally. They feel like they have to stay to try to make it better, that it’s rude to leave. It’s very hard to disengage. So, a huge thing we can do is remind kids that they can leave,” she says. Younger children and adolescents may want to use parents as an excuse if they are finding it difficult to exit – “it can be a huge out for kids,” says Heitner.
Remember that human beings are on the other side
Online words and behavior can hurt or harm others, and “sometimes we can see online disinhibition where kids forget that they’re typing to others,” says Heitner. “We just need to remind kids that they’re always communicating with other human beings and they’re accountable and responsible for not causing harm intentionally.”
Be a mentor more than a monitor
Remember your ultimate goals as a parent when introducing this sophisticated new device – which Heitner suggests “should be that your children are independently communicating with friends and coming to you if there’s a problem.”
Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, JD, and founder of DigitalParentingCoach.com, agrees – “I really want to stress that, it’s not about parental controls. We’re talking about parental guidance. We can set boundaries and set opportunities looking for ways of using smartphones and other technology in a way that’s going to help your child thrive, that’s going to help them with school, that’s going to help them in their social connections.”
Building trust as kids get older instead of reinforcing a top-down monitor role will ultimately lead to more visibility into the reality of their online activities, says Heitner. “We really want to take an approach with our kids, whatever new digital experiences or digital communities they’re entering, we want to be thinking about mentoring, teaching them how to get it right, teaching them to be accountable and repair their errors,” says Heitner. “Monitoring is often about catching kids after the fact, and you don’t want to find out after the fact that they’ve used their phone to look at pornography, or that they’ve used their phone to say something really harmful in a digital space. You want to make sure that you’re not so focused on monitoring that you end up driving your kid underground” or into another less-monitored channel to communicate, Heitner cautions.
For parents who may feel overwhelmed being a mentor in online spaces they may be unfamiliar with, Heither suggests that “those conversations with kids are crucial. Listening to other people and talking to the other adults in your life, reaching out to librarians, folks at school – there are a lot of folks who probably have heard of that app if you haven’t. Don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself and be panicking in isolation.”
Set the example for healthy use yourself
Modeling healthy device use is crucial for parents who want children to develop their own healthy habits around tech use. “Kids will do what you do, not what you tell them to do,” says Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of Family Online Safety Institute. “So don’t use your phone as an alarm clock, which means that’s going to be the first thing you see as you wake up, the last thing you look at before you go to bed. They’ll copy you straight away and they’ll want their devices in their bedroom.”
Think about what children are learning from your own patterns of use. “One of the things we found in our research is that half of children in elementary or middle school say that they have had significant numbers of times where they’re trying to get their parents attention and their parents are looking at a device,” says Englander.
“Parents, please start with yourself,” says Balkam. “Curb your own addictions, if that’s what you want to call them, and put things down and give your own kids eye contact, give them hugs, whatever it is, and be present for them.” Yet Englander wants to remind parents that as an adult “you have many more responsibilities and you also have many more privileges,” and there are times where adults must use their devices more for work or family management tasks.
Don’t give up
“Parents always think that parenting in the digital age is so big, it’s much more difficult than something that they can handle. And really it’s just down to the basics – about being there, about having those conversations, about getting creative when your children go around the rules that you’ve set up because they will do so. But this is a great, great opportunity for you to learn with them, for you to keep on finding out what’s going on. Parents – don’t give up hope, because kids, cellphones, smartphones, they’re here to stay. We really can do this.”
Elizabeth Milovidov, JD, PhD, founder of DigitalParentingCoach.com
Despite your best efforts, there may come a time when your child’s smartphone use starts to become problematic. What can you do to help your child re-establish healthy boundaries or deal with a developing problem?
First acknowledge successes
Depending on the level of the problem, start discussion with a line of questioning that empowers rather than reduces the child’s feeling of agency, says Meryl Alper, PhD, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. “‘What do you think is going well with how you’re using things?’ Start off with putting your kid in a place where they’re confident, where they feel like, ‘Hey, like I’m doing a good job with this. I’ve handled this responsibly.’ And then ask, ‘What could be better?’ You always want to build confidence and not undermine whatever growth or maturity your kid is showing with their use of a phone – you want to reward that,” says Alper. From there, you can move to constructive discussion of what may need to be changed.
Contact platforms when needed
If the problem lies with a specific post on a specific platform that is causing harm, or the child account needs to be shut down, parents may need to step in and help by helping children contact the social media platform to take down a harmful post or close an underage account, says Heitner.
Engage third party help if necessary
If the family struggle over problematic use becomes too much for parents or caregivers to handle, “you can work with a third party to do a reset,” such as a therapist, suggests Heitner, who notes her experience hearing from a large number of school resource officers who have been asked by desperate parents to help them take away devices from adolescents. Heitner sees this as a clear indication that families need more support with these types of struggles. Milovidov offers the Better Internet For Kids resource for European families as a go-to resource for problem-solving.
Alper reminds all caregivers experiencing problems with child smartphone use to “know that you are not alone, it can be a very isolating experience. There are resources available to you, but do not panic. It’s really easy to press the literal panic button, because we’re talking about phones, but how you parent is not irreversible and if you make a mistake, you can fix it.”
This tip sheet is based on the webinar "Ready, Set, Smartphone," held on August 2023. Watch a recording of the event, read the transcript, and view other content in Learn and Explore.