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The Smartphone Generation: Setting Limits Instead of Just Saying No

Cell phones are here to stay.

By Cathie Ericson

Many of us parents, given the option, would snap our fingers and make smartphones—and all their complications—go away forever. But smartphones are here to stay, and your teen is now part of the smartphone generation. As you may already be discovering, there’s an inevitability about teens and phones, so we might as well face that reality head-on.

What do we worry about? Too much screen time, too little face-to-face socializing, and the potential pitfalls of social media. As smartphones become ubiquitous, teens have all the pressure associated with always being “on”—but potentially without the maturity to handle it. And that’s troubling.

Smartphone Generation

As reported in Jean Twenge’s new book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, rates of teen depression have skyrocketed—a phenomenon the author links to smartphones. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent. Research supports a connection between this shift and smartphone usage, finding that teens who report more screen time are more likely to be unhappy, compared to teens who spend less time than average with their screen.

Given these findings, why do we even allow our teens to have phones? In many cases, it’s almost as though we have no choice. Pew Research reports that three-quarters of teens have a smartphone, and a whopping 92 percent of them say they go online every day.

Your teens are likely to be among these connected teens—so, rather than “just say no,” how can parents set wise limits?

Is It Time for a Smartphone? Should You Wait Until 8th?

The first step is the “when.” If you’re among those parents who haven’t yet allowed a cell phone at all, you might want to keep holding out—and if they have a simple flip phone, tread carefully when it comes to smartphones.

“Wait as long as possible to give your child a phone,” recommends Twenge, referencing an online campaign called “Wait Until 8th,” where parents pledge to hold off on giving a child a smartphone until eighth grade.

That’s because the younger a child, the larger the negative effects of time spent on social media. “There’s this collision between a child’s first time with a smartphone and their first time dealing with adolescent issues,” Twenge points out. “Middle school is a time when teens are struggling with emotions and identity and budding sexuality, and it’s even harder to work out those issues in a digital age.”

Even when you decide your child is mature enough for a smartphone, that’s not the cue to just give them the phone, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist from Lake Oswego, Oregon, who specializes in technology health. She suggests calling the device a “family phone,” rather than their personal phone to emphasize that parents are going to instill guidelines, and teens will have to prove themselves to be reliable and responsible.

“You want to put norms in place rather than just add screens,” she says. Focus on helping kids balance online relationships with real-life relationships. “Tell them that it is your job to keep them safe, and that you are going to be their frontal cortex since theirs isn’t yet fully developed.”

If you’re not sure your child is ready for all the bells and whistles of a smartphone, you can start slow with how you allow them to use the phone, says Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and founder of the website RaisingDigitalNatives.com. Let them use the device to talk and text, but don’t immediately load it up with a bunch of apps, for example.

Easy to Love, Hard to Put Down: Setting Limits on Phone Use

Does it seem like your teen is constantly clicking and scrolling? To be fair, we might be, too. A survey from Common Sense Media found that 78 percent of teens reported checking their phone at least hourly, but 69 percent of parents said the same.

“I like to remind parents that they are the models,” says Dodgen-Magee. “If you don’t think they should use their device at night, then you shouldn’t bring yours to bed either.”

Which brings up one of the most important limits that should be set: Encourage good evening habits so the phone doesn’t interrupt their sleep. “If you only do one thing, keep the phone out of their room at night,” says Heitner.

Of course, you know they are going to say it’s their alarm clock. Remind them of this novel invention—an actual clock, which you can find for about $10, says Twenge. “Even if the phone is off, it’s still too tempting to have it at the ready while they’re trying to wind down, or if they wake up in the middle of the night.”

Beyond that, the key is to make sure they are balancing their screen time with other activities. Twenge has found a direct correlation between negative teen mental health and the number of hours they spend on their devices, particularly on social media. While more research needs to be done on phones and mental health to determine exactly why these things are correlated, Twenge recommends parents err on the side of caution and look into one of the numerous apps like Freedom or Kidslox that allow you to set daily limits.

However, you probably shouldn’t outright take the phone as a punishment, says Heitner, as they often need it for homework or updates (like when the next soccer practice is). “It’s more productive to have a conversation about when they should unplug and help them develop a healthy balance.”

The Right to Know: How Much Access Should Parents Have?

Whether to read your kid’s texts is a matter of ongoing debate. On one side are parents who say the phone is theirs and so it’s theirs to read; on the other are those who say kids deserve their privacy. (Of course, social media is not private, so at the least, you should scroll your kid’s account every now and then.)

If you do choose to read their texts, let them know you’re going to peek, rather than covertly looking, Heitner suggests. (They might want to warn their friends.) And give them a heads-up about the kind of content that is going to bother you. Can your kids use colorful language? Can they talk about other kids?

But, adds Heitner, if you go this route, prepare to have your feelings hurt. “Think about the stuff you would say to your friends when you were walking home from school and you’d blow off steam if you were annoyed with your mom. Now it’s all written down.”

And checking texts might not bring you the peace of mind you think it will: Remember that kids are masterful at covering their tracks, whether it’s by deleting texts or communicating via another method, like Snapchat. Even having GPS is no panacea, as kids can easily override that or just leave their phone at the place where they are supposed to be.

Give Some Space

You also want to be aware of whether you’re giving them the space to learn independence.When they text you with every question or need, do you jump to their rescue? “Teens are no longer learning how to make mistakes and solve problems on their own,” Twenge says. “It’s a balancing act to decide how much you want to protect them and how much you should let them make their own choices.” After all, points out Heitner, are we still going to be geotracking our kids in college?

Rather than focusing on monitoring, spend your time developing non-shaming, empathy-based connections with your kids, says Dodgen-Magee. “Tell them you know that they will have hard experiences online, and promise them you won’t overreact when they come to you. Keep the communication open.”

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to prevent the pitfalls. “Parents should be more concerned about teaching discernment and wise use, rather than trying to pretend we can control what they see,” Dodgen-Magee says.

The more we empower our kids to learn the rules of the digital world, the safer they will be online.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.