Parenting the Digital World

About a month ago, I was sitting in the toasty warm ski chalet with a group of fellow parent ski club chaperones watching our middle schoolers brave the slopes when the conversation turned to social media.

“It seems like it causes SO much drama,” one mom said. “I just don’t know enough about how anything other than Facebook works to be able to do anything about it.”

“I agree 100%,” another dad chimed in. “I have no idea what my son is doing on there most of the time, and I don’t have any idea how to check.”

Before offering my own thoughts, I braced myself. I anticipated that most parents would be shocked to discover that our teenagers (a 6th grader, a Freshman, and a Junior) don’t get smartphones until Freshman year. They are not allowed to have social media of any kind until age 17, and their use of technology is regularly monitored. What I didn’t anticipate was the questions, interest, and affirmation that quickly followed.

How do your kids stay connected to their friends without social media? Isn’t it socially necessary for them in today’s world?
Social media – particularly Snapchat – is one of the primary ways teenagers today communicate. In a 2020 survey, 34% of teenagers listed Snapchat as their favorite social media, followed closely by TikTok (29%) and Instagram (25%).

However, social media is not the only way they stay connected. Texting, Google chat and the voice and text chat options available through many game consoles (Xbox, Playstation, etc.) are other ways to stay connected. Our teenagers have used and still use all of these to communicate with their friends.

That’s not to say they never feel left out. The two high schoolers have shared with us that there are times they have struggled socially because of our family’s social media restrictions. However, our kids have also acknowledged the value of not having social media. For example, when her friend group was going through a turbulent time of elevated drama, our Freshman daughter came to us and said, “As much as I still want Snapchat, right now I’m kind of glad I don’t have it. Everyone else is totally consumed by the drama, but I have a built-in excuse not to get involved.”

How do I start a conversation about this with my teens?
When we initially decided to hold off on smartphones until high school and social media until age 17, we got a lot of pushback from our kids. “But why?” they asked repeatedly. We found the best way to start the conversation was to share our own struggles.

“Do you think we spend too much time on our phones?” we asked them. They agreed immediately. “We think so too. We’re adults, with fully developed brains, pretty well-formed consciences, and years of practice controlling our impulses…but we still struggle not to let these devices consume our lives. It doesn’t seem fair to ask you to try to regulate your technology use when we can’t even do it well ourselves.”

My kids know way more about this stuff than I do. What can I do to help my teenagers?
Today, many teens are allowed to have unfiltered Internet access, and parents feel they don’t know enough or don’t have the time to sufficiently monitor their activity. However, we cannot assume that our teens self-monitor and self-regulate their own usage. After all, they are still teenagers and can struggle just as much as we did as teenagers with some of those self-regulation and impulse control skills.

At some point, they will have to learn how to use social media and technology well, and that’s something we can help teach and coach our children to do.

Monitor Use

My husband is a public high school principal. He often makes phone calls home to parents about bullying, nudity, or illegal activity popping up on a student’s social media account. He always starts by asking parents if they have their child’s login and password for the phone or the relevant app. All too often, the answer is, “No.”

Teens should not be allowed to have any account – social media or otherwise – that parents do not have to access to. This does not mean that you have to constantly by scrolling through their text conversations or Instagram DMs. You don’t even have to know what an Instagram DM is!

What’s important is that our teens know that we could, at any time, be checking in on their online behavior the same way we check in on their grades. This is a lot easier to set up as an expectation from the beginning than it is to institute later. If you want to check in but don’t understand the technology, many online tutorials and platforms can help.

We also use monitoring software to alert us to anything suspicious that pops up on our kids’ phones. Bark, Covenant Eyes, Disney Circle, and iOS Screen Time are all technologies we have used. Just be aware that there are some apps (Snapchat & Discord) that monitoring software usually cannot track.

Graduated Technology Licensing

We recommend starting teens off with a phone restricted to just the essential apps: call, text, map, weather, and calculator. Then, as they demonstrate more responsibility, add the apps that are most important to them (games, Netflix, email, etc.). The best part about this is that if they misuse or overuse an app, you can remove that app (rather than having to take away the whole phone) until they can re-earn that trust.

Set Expectations & Consequences Early

We give our kids cell phone contracts when they first get their smartphones. Those contracts included the cost of the phone plan and how much we expected them to contribute to that cost. It also included some of our rules for technology use in our home:

    • No phones are allowed in bedrooms
    • Phones must be in the centrally located charging station (in our kitchen) by XX time each evening.
    • All new apps downloaded require parental permission
    • Parents must be given all passwords and login information
    • No nudity, illegal activity, or bullying

It also spelled out the consequences for breaking these rules.

When faced with taking away a phone or deactivating a social media account due to misuse, parents often fear that it will just “make things terrible at home.” Setting these expectations up from the beginning helps us not respond out of anger when something goes wrong. Instead, we can calmly look at the expectations and consequences together and implement what we all agreed to when tempers weren’t so hot.

Be a Good Role Model

Our 6th grader wears his lack of smartphone as a badge of honor right now. “I’m the only one whose face isn’t constantly on a screen,” he said during a recent family dinner. He wasn’t wrong. The hardest challenge we’ve faced is recognizing when our own social media & technology use is getting in the way of our time with our family.

My phone is where I get my daily news, sports updates, and side-splitting laughs that brighten my day. Social media helps me stay connected with people I have not seen in years. At the push of a button, I can see my nephew in another state receive an award from school or watch my godson’s basketball game on livestream. But it can also get in the way of quality time I need to spend with my spouse and children. I can easily escape into a world of endless scrolling instead of being present to the people right in front of me.

We’ve added a few additional safeguards in our family to try to help us all with this temptation. We’ve implemented “No Screen Sunday,” where the only screentime allowed is a sporting event or movie the whole family watches together. In addition, we’ve designated our dinner table as a “Screen-Free Zone.”

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash