By Sean Clifford, Crosswalk.com
‘Tis the season – when Santa leaves new smart devices under the Christmas tree. Every year, more new smartphones are activated on Christmas Day than any other day of the year. Many of them are unwrapped by delighted teenagers, who have been begging their parents for a phone for months (or even years). For teens, being trusted with their first smartphone, tablet, or computer can bring feelings of excitement and newfound independence. But for parents, if the situation isn’t approached thoughtfully, their teen’s new phone can be a source of conflict and harmful influences.
Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be that way. If you’re thinking about getting your kid a smartphone this Christmas, here are five things you should consider:
1. Talk to your teen about the responsibility of owning a phone
For teens, a phone is a privilege, not a right. After all, every smartphone on the market today is hundreds of times more powerful than the computer that guided Apollo 11 to the moon. Alongside the ability for teens to freely text their friends, browse the web, and play mobile games comes the responsibility to make good choices online, even when they aren’t supervised. Parents should make clear that phones are neutral tools that can be used well or poorly. Kids should leave the conversation confident their parents trust them, but also aware that it’s up to them to demonstrate that they deserve the privilege of having their own phone.
2. Establish clear boundaries at the beginning
For most families, it will be much easier to establish healthy tech boundaries right when their kids first get a phone than to try to introduce them later, after problems arise. For example, parents can make clear rules against using phones right before bedtime or at the dinner table. If you explain boundaries like these up front and enforce them consistently, your kids will quickly form positive tech habits that can last for years.
3. Reevaluate your own tech habits
On a related note, parents need to model healthy tech habits for their kids. That might mean reassessing the times and places they use their own smartphones, since kids learn from and mimic the behaviors of their parents. If you’re spending every free moment scrolling Instagram, your teen will notice and think they should be, too. Plus, it will be much easier to enforce reasonable rules for your son or daughter when it’s clear that you’re trying to follow them too. You’ll come across as an ally, rather than an enemy, who aspires to have the same kind of healthy relationship with your device that you expect of them.
4. Set up parental control software
Smartphones are incredibly powerful, and for teens, learning to use one safely is a lot like learning to drive a car. A teen’s first car can provide a life-changing sense of independence and autonomy. But, as we all know, cars can also be dangerous, even when they’re used correctly. No parent in their right mind would just give their car keys to their kid without first teaching them to drive. Parents should approach new devices similarly. Trusting your kids with a new device can be a gradual process that doesn’t need to feel like an all-or-nothing decision.
For example, before you give your teen their first device, you can set up a customizable parental control app (like Canopy, which works on smartphones, tablets, and computers) that filters explicit content and allows parents to block particular apps. On the modern internet, age-appropriate content is intermingled with harmful content, especially pornography. Sadly, the average American kid is now exposed to it before they turn thirteen. We built Canopy, a next-generation internet filtering app powered by artificial intelligence, to protect the hearts and minds of the next generation by blocking pornography on every single website, without preventing kids from accessing content that is safe and appropriate.
You can start with more safeguards, while your teen first gets used to their new smartphone, and gradually give them more independence as they begin to learn good habits and demonstrate responsible behavior. With this approach, your teen’s phone can grow with them over time.
5. Set the stage for more conversations
For teens nowadays, getting their first smart device is a major milestone on the gradual journey toward becoming a responsible, well-adjusted adult. With every passing year, smart devices play a greater and greater role in adult life. For better or worse, it’s increasingly certain that many of their most meaningful personal and professional relationships will develop and take place partly online, mediated by a screen.
For your teen, getting familiar with their first smart device is just the beginning of a much longer learning process. As they spend more time online and encounter unfamiliar people and new situations, they will undoubtedly have many questions. In preparation for this, you should let your teen know that you are always available to talk, no matter the topic. It’s especially important to emphasize to them that if anything that happens online makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it’s best to tell you about it right away, because you can help. That way, when uncomfortable topics like sexting and pornography (which, unfortunately, more and more kids are exposed to every year) inevitably come up, they’ll feel comfortable going to you first for advice and guidance.
It’s worth mentioning that getting a new smart device is almost as significant of an event for parents as it is for kids. Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the prospect of your kid having free rein over their very own device – that’s totally normal. After all, you’re part of the first generation of parents ever to navigate this particular set of challenges. Unlike with other aspects of parenting, there’s no tried and true established wisdom to guide parents on how to best handle their kid’s developing tech habits. And on top of that, technology trends change so quickly that parents often feel they have no chance of keeping up. By the time they finally learn how Snapchat works, for example, their kids have moved on.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do everything perfectly to make a positive difference. Think of your teen’s first device as an opportunity for you to grow and learn as a parent, much like it is for your son or daughter. And remember that you’re not alone in this – many other parents with kids of similar age are asking the same questions, struggling with the same decisions, and having the same doubts. Sharing your tech journey with other like-minded families can help both parents and kids feel supported and encouraged. For parents, it’s reassuring to share thoughts and concerns and ask for advice from other parents with similar values. And kids will feel more confident and “normal” when they know their peers’ families approach technology the same way their own does. Big challenges, like learning how to help the next generation live well with tech, are best addressed in community.
The bottom line is that as long as you approach the situation thoughtfully, with clear goals and a willingness to learn, there is a way forward. When it comes to helping kids learn to flourish with technology, even when you’re not perfect, you can have a huge positive impact on your own kids’ lives and on your community.
Sean Clifford is a father of four and the founder and CEO of Canopy.
Image credit: Unsplash/William Hook