Should your Teen get a Cellphone? Plus the 4 Big Questions Parents Have About Kids and Technology

I Screen You Screen… We All Scream for MORE SCREENS!

Is your child irritable? Has she lost interest in things she used to love? Does she have trouble sleeping? Does she have extreme mood swings? Does she seem to have low energy all the time?  Do you brace yourself for the volcanic eruption that will no doubt occur when you tell her to put her device away?

If you answered yes to any of these things, it’s very possible your child is feeling the effects of too much screen time.

While it’s possible that any of the previously mentioned issues are signs of other disorders (or simply the result of being a moody teenager), it’s  just as likely that these behaviors are related to your child’s overconsumption of input from that magical little device known as a smartphone (or ipod, ipad, tablet, etc.). While some people (including my own children) accuse me of being a little “crazy” about this topic, I 100% believe that our obsession with technology has become an epidemic that is harming our children. That’s right, an epidemic.

Technology is Just as Addicting for Kids

My husband and I have worked in public education for nearly 20 years. We are seeing some very negative effects from kids’ overuse of technology.

In preschool and elementary kids, I see inattention, poor social skills, lack of patience, poor sleep habits, lack of empathy, irritability, and a need for constant entertainment (among other things). At the high school level, my husband sees many of the same things. He also sees many students who seem to genuinely feel as if they cannot survive without their device– even for one class period. This is a real problem.

My 14 year old son still does not have a phone. He has an ipod that he can use to play games, listen to music, and contact his friends. He has a limited amount of time that he is allowed to use it each day. He does not take it to school. He does not take it to his sporting events. He does not take it to his friends’ houses. He knows that my husband and I have full access to his device any time we want. And while he occasionally pipes up about how unfair it is that EVERYONE has a phone but him, for the most part it’s not a big issue.

We have lots of conversations about why we have these rules established. We want him to understand that there are reasons for us setting these boundaries. He gets good grades. He has a lot of friends. He’s healthy. He’s active. He helps out around the house. He hangs out with his family. In short, he is a happy well adjusted teenager.

teens and cellphones

My 10 year old daughter does not have any sort of electronic device. With permission, she is allowed to use my ipad for games and music. She too has not suffered any dire consequences as a result of not having much technology in her life. I am fully aware that there will be struggles about technology with her in the near future and that the concerns may be very different with a teenage girl. But for now, things are OK.

Kids Cannot Self-Manage Their Technology Use

Ryan Meyers of Alliance Counseling Group in Grandville works with many teenage girls who struggle with body image issues, difficult interpersonal relationships, anxiety, and depression. She sees a strong connection between an overuse of technology (especially social media) and these very serious issues.

Putting more emphasis on relationships and less emphasis on screen time is important for your teen’s emotional health,” says Ryan. “The benefits of spending time with friends where teens are engaging without electronics far surpasses the benefits of being on a screen.

“Teens are struggling to make true emotional connections and part of this is because of the overuse of electronics,” he continues. “Fight for your teen’s heart and help them to find a balance between their screens and making real connections with friends.”

My husband is a rather brilliant science guy. He teaches Honors Biology and Human Anatomy- he knows kids and he knows kids’ brains. He feels that it is unfair for adults to give kids the responsibility of managing technology appropriately. Their brains are simply not equipped to do that.

Teenagers’ brains look a little bit like Swiss cheese.

Their ability to make good decisions is far from fully developed.

Think about what a cell phone is: at the touch of a button, you can access everything (including porn, predators, etc.) on the internet. You can fire off a message to (or about) anyone. You can spend hours playing mindless games. You can take pictures of yourself. You can send those pictures to others. You can compare yourself to others. You can buy stuff.

An article from Psychology Today states that “Many children are ‘hooked’ on electronics, and in fact gaming releases so much dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical) that on a brain scan, it looks the same as cocaine use.”

To put a magical little device in their hands and expect them to handle it appropriately is simply irresponsible. Let that sink in for a moment- is it possible that we are giving our kids more than they are physically and emotionally able to handle? I say yes.

at what age do kids get cellphones

Answers to the 4 Big Questions Parents Have About Kids and Technology

So what can we do about it? Here are some frequently asked questions and my answers:

1 – When Should my kid get a Smartphone?

Many studies suggest that the average age kids are getting smartphones has dropped from 12 to 10 years old. Bill Gates reportedly held off on purchasing smartphones for his kids until they turned 14.

Ultimately, this decision is up to you as parents. My advice would be to hold off until your child is in high school. PBS Parents suggests the following questions to consider when making this decision:

  • How independent are your kids?
  • Do your children “need” to be in touch for safety reasons — or social ones?
  • How responsible are they?
  • Can they get behind the concept of limits for minutes talked and apps downloaded?
  • Can they be trusted not to text during class, disturb others with their conversations, and to use the text, photo, and video functions responsibly (and not to embarrass or harass others)?
  • Do they really need a smartphone that is also their music device, a portable movie and game player, and portal to the Internet?
  • Do they need something that gives their location information to their friends — and maybe some strangers, too — as some of the new apps allow?
  • And do you want to add all the expense of new data plans? (Try keeping your temper when they announce that their new smart phone got dropped in the toilet…)

2 – What is a Healthy Amount of Screen Time per Day?

Surprisingly, there have been very few guidelines published about this. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours per day of “entertainment based screen time.” for children ages 6 and up. I personally think that is still too much.

As parents, you need to set limits. Allowing your child unlimited access to screens is a recipe for disaster.

This article from USA Today states, “Researchers from San Diego State and Florida State universities discovered nearly half of teens who got five or more hours of screen time each day had experienced thoughts of suicide or prolonged periods of hopelessness or sadness. That’s nearly double that of teens who spent fewer than an hour in front of a screen.”

Hours of screen time + teenage brain = big problems.

Ryan Meyers had this advice:

Have screen free days /nights where you connect as a family. Invite your child’s friends over, play games, have bonfires, go to the beach, lay in the sun… show your kids the importance of engaging in experiences that bring them joy.”

Here is a quick online quiz you can take: Is my child getting too much screen time?

3 – What are Some Ways I can set Limits for my Kids When it Comes to Technology?

One important thing to consider is what type of example you are setting for your kids when it comes to screen time. While some like to use the “I’m an adult and I get to do what I want” rule, it’s pretty tough to limit your kids’ screen time if you are constantly glued to your own device.

I would strongly suggest using the app Moment. This app tracks the amount of time you are on your device. It also tracks how many times you pick up your device throughout the day. I do not consider myself to be a heavy device user, but this app certainly suggests otherwise. It was rather eye opening. If you want to start limiting your kids’ screen time, you need to also limit your own.

Many families have had success creating contracts or a Family Media Plan. Important details to lay out are things like when and where you can have your device, what apps and websites you are allowed to access, what time your device needs to be turned in at night, and where your device is kept (hint- NOT in your child’s room!) Keep in mind that whatever guidelines you set up you have to be willing to enforce.

4 – How can I Help my Kids be Safe Online?

This Safe Kids online quiz is a good starting point to help assess your child’s awareness of safety online. Talk to your kids about what they are allowed to access online and frequently check their browsing history. It’s also important to let your kids know they should come to you if they make a mistake or if they do something they know is wrong.

Keeping those lines of communication open is so important. It’s also great to have communication with your kids’ friends’ parents. If we are all looking out for our kids’ safety, everyone wins.

Protect Young Eyes is an organization whose primary focus is on keeping kids safe when it comes to technology. They offer parent trainings both online and in person. They have also created a Home Internet Safety Quiz. Protect Young Eyes recommends no social media until high school.

I recently took my family to see the documentary Screenagers. There are many great resources on their website in addition to information about where to see the movie. I highly recommend Screenagers to all parents and kids ages 10 and up.

Our job as parents is to teach our kids right from wrong, keep them safe, and show them how to navigate this big scary world. Sometimes we have to say no. Sometimes we make our kids cry. Sometimes the consequences we dole out make our life a little bit miserable, too.

Just remember, technology is a privilege, not a right. Good luck… stay strong… and remember that thing I said about Swiss cheese.




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