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So You Gave Your Kid a Phone for Christmas…Now What?

Many lucky kids got new smartphones or tablets over this holiday season; these days more than two-thirds of kids own a smartphone by age 12. But owning one comes with serious responsibilities, both for us as parents and for our kids. 

Unfortunately, research shows that nearly a quarter of young people engage in what researchers consider “problematic smartphone usage.” This dysfunctional usage is associated with increased odds of depression, increased anxiety, higher perceived stress, and poorer sleep quality.

So, how can you help your child establish a healthy relationship with their new digital devices? Here are some ideas:

  • Create a technology contract (A sample contract can be found here). It helps to be super explicit with new device owners about your expectations—this is a part of the scaffolding discussed in chapter two of The New Adolescence. Creating a “technology contract” with your kids is a way to be really clear about your family rules and expectations. Key issues to address are: sleep, sexting, pornography, privacy. 
  • Help kids reorganize their phones so they are less distracting. For example, have them move the most addictive apps (like social media—and anything they check compulsively or on a whim when they see it) off their homepage.
  • Remember that you are the parent. Even with older teenagers, if you are paying for their device and cell phone plan, you are still in charge — and responsible. You get to set limits and guidelines. Because these devices are very addictive, even the most tech-savvy teenagers need their parents’ support.
  • Designate device-free times and spaces in your home. Just because our kids can physically take their computers into the bathroom these days does not mean that this is a sensible thing to do. Similarly, beds are for sleeping, not for checking Instagram. 
  • Teach them the art of “strategic slacking.” We all need stillness in order to function. The constant stream of external stimulation coming from our kids’ smartphones causes a state of chronic low-grade overwhelm that impairs their ability to plan, organize, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn, and control their emotions. 

The most important we parents can do is clearly state our expectations around our kids’ technology use. Even (maybe especially) teenagers need us to paint bright lines for healthy usage. We can do this without being too draconian about the dangers of problematic phone use; smartphones are amazing and fun and, actually, not dangerous when used properly. So enjoy!