Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Boston Area Health Psychologist

With the end-of-year holidays at hand, you might be thinking about gifting your child a phone or tablet. I’ve previously written about helping your child develop appropriate online skills, and now I want to share some tips about setting your child up for success with their new device.

Many parents (myself included!) feel ambivalent about giving their child a smart phone or tablet. On the one hand, it’s convenient, you can keep tabs on your child, it’s the way of the world, and, of course, “everybody else has one!.” On the other hand, devices and subscription plans are expensive, many apps are a waste of time, social media is a jungle, and, of course, “I didn’t have one when I was your age and I grew up just fine!

It’s true that most children over 10 years old have a cell phone. However, that doesn’t mean it’s simply a matter of buying something and tossing it over to them. You would never do that with your car keys, would you? 

With a little thought and planning, you can help your child develop more responsibility in the online world. Be involved, especially when they first start out, and then slowly let them have more independence. Digital devices have a powerful impact on every aspect of your child’s life. They should enhance your child’s life, not control it.

1. The device should provide the necessary rather than the desired

Your child probably wants the latest and greatest smart phone, but do they really need it? If you give them a top-of-the line device, what’s next? As you can probably imagine, the more bells and whistles, the more expensive the device and the more expensive the monthly subscription costs.

So choose options carefully. Texting might be important, but is multimedia messaging? How necessary is it for your child to access email or the Internet? Should it play music or stream video? Do you want a device that can run every new app? In other words, is it a tool or a toy?

I also urge strong consideration of a refurbished phone or tablet. Your child might complain about getting an out-of-date (i.e., last year’s) device, but tell them recycling is good for the planet. Which, by the way, is true.

2. Take a new look at parental controls

Parental controls have evolved as concern has grown over overuse and unsupervised use. You can now remotely limit device activity, manage apps, block sites, get reports about usage, and require your child to request access time from you. 

There are some negatives to controls. They may block necessary material like web sites or apps necessary for school. Your child may see them as a challenge to work around. Controlling your child’s device takes the responsibility away from them. 

However, I think parental controls can be useful. The Internet itself has few built-in guidelines to help children develop appropriate use or protect them from the riskier aspects of the online world. Parental controls are no substitution for parents, but they provide a tool that parents can use. And it’s much easier to add privileges as a child shows responsibility than to take away privileges when a child cannot handle them.

3. Connect the device to your account

Both Android and iOS allow you to share your apps and media with up to five other people. This, in effect, ties your child’s device to your account. You can help guide them away from inappropriate material and oversee their usage. For example, iOS now provides automatic weekly reports about screen time.

Like parental controls, connecting your child’s device to your account might feel like you are “controlling” them. Actually, there’s some truth to that. It makes sense to have at least some control over how they use a brand new, very expensive, and very powerful device. How else are they going to learn to use it responsibly?

4. Write up a user contract

I’m a strong believer in writing things down. On paper. Be very clear about what you expect from your child, but also what your child can expect from you. Everybody should know the consequences for breaking the rules and for following them.

Develop the contract as a family. Model how you want your child to make decisions, lay out expectations, and consider consequences (good and bad) together. You will almost certainly learn something, and children who are involved in decision-making are more invested in following the rules they help develop.

There are many example contracts online you can use as a starting point. I like the Family Online Safety Institute’s. It’s a good organization to know about.

5. Allow for appropriate autonomy

At some point, perhaps sooner than you want or expect, your child will start making their own decisions about device use (and hopefully paying on their own as well). If you want them to show responsibility, you have to give them some freedom. Yes, they will mess up. They will break your rules. They will get into trouble. Those are opportunities for correction and growth. It’s much better to make mistakes while they still have you to provide support and guidance.

So, if your child is more-or-less following your rules, allow them more freedoms. They might want to join social media. Yes, it’s the Wild West out there and there’s all sorts of ways to get into trouble. But if they’ve shown you they can follow your guidelines, they’ll have the tools they need to flourish online.

Picking out the phone or table you want to give to your child is just the beginning. With a bit of planning, you can confidently set the stage for your child to responsibly enjoy their brand new device, at least until next year’s models come out.

December 7th, 2018

Posted In: Parenting, Tech