A study on tween and teen media use conducted by Common Sense Media in 2019 revealed some intriguing data. They found that over two-thirds (69%) of kids have their own smartphone by 12 years of age. That means that most middle schoolers and their parents have entered the world of smartphones, with all its apps, online entertainment, and social media interaction.
Another particularly eyebrow-raising finding is that only 15% of tweens report using an app or a tool to track their device time, and only about one in four tweens (28%) say that their parent uses an app or tool to track their child’s time spent on a device. While 50% of tweens say that their parent does use some type of app or tool to monitor what they do on their devices, this still leaves a lot of young people unchecked with what they do and how long they use their phones each day.
Once you and your family have decided the time is right to get your child a smartphone and made the choice to entrust your middle schooler with a device, here are some next steps you can take together to work toward keeping them healthy and safe…
Consider a family media contract.
Possessing your own smart device is no small deal, and one way to communicate that to your tween is by sitting down and talking through a family media agreement or contract. A document like this provides the framework for discussing important subjects like device time allowance, appropriate content, safety, and consequences of not abiding by the agreement. Write your own, use a customizable media plan template, or use an already-written family media agreement or general family media contract to get the conversation going.
Understand and use parental controls.
From built-in features on major operating systems (Apple, Windows, etc.) to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, to apps such as Snapchat and TikTok, there are many privacy settings and parental controls available to help impose time limits and filter content. It might require a bit of digging to locate and customize parental controls on each of these platforms, but it can go a long way in helping your child stay safe and healthy on their device.
Check into monitoring and filtering service options.
While parental controls can certainly be helpful, most applications do not have passcode-protection for those settings (so a child can change them). There are several reliable software programs that allow parents to monitor and filter what their children have access to on their own devices. Each offers slightly different services and delivery methods. Check these out to learn more:
With so much of our lives (work, school, entertainment, social interaction, etc.) oriented around screens these days, setting boundaries for when, where and how to use our personal devices is crucial. Perhaps as a family unit, you can together determine what boundaries are best. It could be physical boundaries, limiting screen use to certain parts of the house. It could be time boundaries, determining certain hours of the day for screen use. It could be content boundaries like setting time limits on game play, texting, video watching, etc. Or it may be a combination of these types of boundaries. Make a plan (some family media contracts include various limits), and stick to it.
Be a media use model and digital mentor.
This one can be especially tricky for us adults. As with anything in life, our kids take cues from us on how to use media. They've been watching us with our smartphones for years. As they step into owning their own device, it's more important than ever that we model positive, healthy habits for our tweens and teens. This includes following any and all household rules regarding tech use. If one of your family boundaries is 'no phones at the dinner table,' make sure you are modeling that for your kids.
Establishing relational space to have healthy, transparent conversations with our tweens and teens is hard. Developmentally, this is often a time in kids' lives in which they seek to confide more in peers than us parents. But we must establish open dialogue about screen time and media use. We must prepare them for interaction with the world through their screens, like what to do if/when they see inappropriate material or an unknown person tries to contact them. Teens need to know that their identity is in Christ; if a teen doesn't know that their identity and joy are found in Christ, they will look for it elsewhere. With that, they need to be encouraged not to crave the approval of others or seek fulfillment in attention from others (online or in-person). Having these types of conversations on the front end of your child getting a phone will help to set a healthy trajectory for media use moving forward.
It seems inevitable that issues will arise as our kids navigate having their own device. This is why we must keep talking to them. Maybe it's a conflict that arises from a social media interaction. Maybe it's an obvious tendency toward overuse that surfaces in our kids. Maybe it's a subtle feeling of emptiness that creeps in to our kids as they figure out how to balance so many different elements of life on the same device. Whatever it is for your family, try to dialogue about it. Check in regularly and discuss apps and other ways your child is using their phone. Ask questions and "do tech" together. Perhaps open up about your own current feelings and attitudes with your personal device use. Keep talking.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all or failproof strategy for keeping our kids safe on their devices, there are many tools we can utilize to work toward their digital health and safety.
[To further explore the topic of kids and technology, make sure to check out episode 104--"Technology in Education"--of the Navigating Your Child's Education podcast for parents.]