I was at a ski team race talking to another mom and the subject turned from shredding the gnarr to cell phones and screen use. No surprise.
I mentioned to this mom how phones affect my work as a substitute teacher. “Students walk into class with their ear buds in and they try to keep them on the entire class period,” I shared, adding that you see students in the hallways between classes and at lunch as well plugged in. When I ask students to please put away their phones, they sometimes respond that their regular teacher lets them have their ear buds on the entire class period, and their parents at home don’t mind either.
Communicating to this mom my frustration with screen dependency, I noted how I believe that parents need to set cell phone usage parameters starting at a young age, so kids learn proper technology etiquette and screen-use manners.
We are all navigating this somewhat new, ever present parenting issue.
Yet, this ski team mom had a different take.
“The phone is one battle I’m just not going to take on,” she said. “I let my son use his phone whenever he is at home.”
Even during dinner.
Even when she talking to him.
Even when they are watching a movie together.
I was really surprised and thought the opposite: screen use is one parenting battle we cannot give up on.
Cell phones are not the enemy of course. It is a great tool that we all use. At home I Google recipes on my phone and check the weather and check email and get group texts about sport team practices for my son and for my exchange student; we send family photos to a group chat keeping in touch with our far away daughter. It is a computer in our hands for our kids and us.
And yet, kids to need help navigating this tool at their disposal 24/7. We all need to evaluate our cell phone use and be intentional about what kind of impact it will have in our lives.
With that in mind, I began thinking of things that have helped our family along the way of parenting our kids in the digital age. Here are nine ways to navigate screen use in families.
1. Hold off on allowing children to use cell phones and other electronic devices until appropriate ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 24 months to not use digital devices at all. Children ages 2 to 5 should be limited to one hour a day of screen time with only high-quality programming. My son-in-law is a third-year pediatric resident who talks about how parents acknowledge that they let their children use their phones way too early and way too long. We’ve all seen them: kids younger and younger with cell phones and I pads and it feels like it is spiraling out of control. Screens can become our kids’ babysitters, if we let them. In past generations, when my kids were younger for example, it was the television, but today, it’s YouTube on cell phones raising our kids when they are young and snap chat when kids are older.
2. Set limits on phone use for your family. Talk to your kids about what that would look like; ask them to come up with ideas. In the olden days, this may have been the television. In my family growing up, we had to ask to turn on the TV, and we turned it off in the middle of a movie if it was past our bedtime. We watched television for the evening news and on weekends for special shows.
3. Tell your kiddos that the phone is yours and it is a privilege not a “right.” Make sure that your kids know that you can have access to their phones at anytime, which is a way to keep them accountable. A soccer mom I recently had happy hour with said to me: “I randomly pick up my son’s phone and go through it and that is just part of the deal.” She shared with me some of the things that teenagers ask of one another—photos to be sent from one kid to another.
4. Establish a phone free/technology-free day or segment of a day. On Sundays after church, when my twins were growing up, we used to have bagels and tea, and then curl up on the couches and read our books, with phones turned off, and those are some of my favorite memories. When my twins attended Young Life Camp in Malibu Canada they talked about how the staff took their phones away during the week at camp, and when camp was over, staff returned phones to students, and the first thing all of the kids did was look at their phones. And one of my twins said to a few friends near him: “No, don’t do that. Let’s stay off our phones.” Kids appreciate time away from screens—we have to help them realize that!
5. Set a time of day when cell phones are in a public zone away from kids at night. Evenings are too tempting for kids; notifications are endless and disruptive. I have mom friends who say that at 10 pm they ask their kids to put their phones in a basket in the kitchen. It helps kids sleep or read or write or do non-electronic things. I began implementing this with my 11th grader and our 10th grade German exchange student recently. I also have been trying to get off my phone by 10 pm at night as well. We all need our brains to rest!
6. Don’t allow phones at the dinner table. Period. If a question comes up about your kids schedule and they say they can look it up, tell them you can wait. If a question comes up about world peace and they say they can look it up, tell them it can wait. Muse on the question but remind them that you do not need to answer it right then and there. Dinner table culture should be about conversations, how the day went, life, connecting, not cell phone instant info.
7. Encourage your kiddos to talk to their friends about phone use. I remember when a young adult gal that I used to mentor told me that she hosted Friday night dinners for her and other 20-something friends, and she had a basket on her counter where she asked folks to put their phones during the meal! I love that! And our exchange student from Germany says that he has his friends put their phones in a common space when they get together back home. I am so impressed. It just takes one person to initiate.
8. Let kids be bored. Let them daydream. Let them explore. Sans the phone. So many times I’ve seen screens be used as a way to entertain kids, to keep them quiet. I know it’s easy but kids need the opportunity to be imaginative and creative without their screens.
9. Lead by example. I have read so many posts and articles about parents being on their phones in public spaces like parks and restaurants while kiddos play alone or eat by themselves. Kids are watching us. Kids need us to be screen free. So much of conversation and life happens when we just shoot the breeze tech-free.
I remember a family road trip vacation we were on in 2015 and we had talked to the kids in advance about phone usage and how we wanted a phone free time. We started the trip with a stop at Cousins Restaurant in The Dalles, Oregon. As we were leaving the restaurant a couple said to us that they loved how our kids were not on their phones at all during our meal. They were watching. People notice.
We can do this! Yet, we need to plan for it and to think through our family culture and adjust accordingly when it comes to technology. We just cannot give up on this battle.
How do you navigate screen use in your family? What cell phone rules do you have set in place, if any? What can you add to this list? How has the little device – Handy as they call it in Germany, affected you? I’d love to hear in the comments section.