If you’re the parent of a tween or teen, you probably feel like your kid is on her cell phone, like, all the time. Between scrolling her Instagram feed and FaceTiming friends, it’s as much a source of entertainment as it is a communication tool. This is a trend that’s not going away—more than half of 10 to 13-year-olds own a smartphone, and that number just climbs as kids get older, according to MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit organization that focuses on media literacy.
With the pull these pocket-sized computers have, it’s not surprising many parents report the amount their kids spend on them to be a source of conflict. And in a survey by the U.S. non-profit Common Sense Media, 47 per cent of parents in the U.S. think their kid is addicted to their mobile device.
As parents we tend to be reactive—we see our kids spending a lot of time on their phone and nag them to put it down—but that approach doesn’t teach good long-term habits. Here are some better ways to approach the conversation.
Make it a “we” issue
Let’s be honest—it’s just as hard for parents to dock their phones, and there’s a reason for it. Parents and kids alike get a dopamine hit every time their phone pings with the arrival of a notification. With smartphones, we never know when the ping might come, which makes it doubly exciting when it happens—a phenomenon known as “intermittent response.” That intermittent response is what makes it so habit forming, says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts.
An age-by-age guide to kids and smartphones“Sit down and say, ‘This phone stuff is new to our family. We don’t want to keep fighting about it in our home. We keep reading stuff about how addictive it can be for everyone’” suggests Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power, a Calgary-based parent education company.
Parents can talk about how they’ve turned off their notifications to help break that habit—and take away some of the smartphone’s power to draw them back—and show their kids how to do the same.
Don’t demonize technology
Ranting about how Apple spends billions to get us hooked on their products is probably just going to make you sound tragically uncool.
“You have to recognize that kids like media—we all like media. So if you come in being very negative, then kids will tune you out,” says Johnson.
Instead, talk about the benefits of a smartphone: how it helps with research for school projects or to stay in touch with friends. Then, segue into how our smartphone habits can creep into time we could be spending doing other things we enjoy, like hanging out with friends or going skiing. It’s also worth mentioning that liking every friend’s post, or continuing a Snapchat streak, can quickly become a chore.
“Put it in terms of how it could be having a negative impact on other parts of their lives,” Johnson says.
Discuss limits and boundaries
Call a family meeting to come up with a smartphone plan, says Bell. Work with your kids to choose some appropriate times to use mobile devices—perhaps after homework and chores are completed—and decide how much time per day is acceptable. Bell notes that all smartphone activities (texting, FaceTiming, social media, YouTube, games) should take place during those windows. You should also agree on no-phone zones, like the kitchen table, bedrooms and car.
Once you’ve set the terms, stick to them—parents included. “You have to be a good role model,” says Bell. “Kids learn media habits from adult role models and the research is telling us that’s bad news.”
The better news is research shows that just having household rules in place will make everyone more likely to follow good habits.
Use facts and research wisely
Parents imagine that presenting overwhelming scientific evidence will sway kids over to their side. In reality, this isn’t always effective (cue eyeroll). What’s more, you can’t use the argument that smartphone dependence will interfere with your older kid’s development—most of that is done by the teen years, and there isn’t any cause-and-effect data that links excessive smartphone use with mental deficits in that age group. (Excessive screen time can interfere with a younger kid’s development, though, as it doesn’t provide the kind of stimulus, like creative play, physical exploration and interaction with other people, that they need.)
One area where the research is clear, however, is smartphones’ impact on sleep. “Using any kind of screen device near to bedtime has an impact on the quality of sleep, and having a connected device in the room has an impact of the quality of sleep—even if you’re not using it,” says Johnson.
Tell your kid that not getting enough shuteye impacts mood, stress levels, health, and productivity at school. Just like saying no to driving and texting, keeping phones out of the bedroom is an area where you have to be strict, says Johnson. (You can tell kids it’s okay to blame their “dumb parents” for missing a message after they’re in bed.)
The best conversation to have, though, might be about how smartphones fit into your family values. By telling your kids that you’re a family that enjoys spending time together and not looking at your phone—and then putting down your phone and spending time with your kid—you might start getting the results you’re looking for.