The call to gather for dinner has gone digital in Dale Disney’s Natomas home. Instead of walking through the house and rounding up his family when mealtime rolls around, he shoots off a few “time to eat” texts.
Messaging is the easiest way to reach his three daughters – ages 17, 14, and 11 – who are usually somewhere in the house with their devices in hand. Morgan, his eldest, is most likely in her bedroom, surfing the web or on social media, he said. Like her sisters, she’s had a cellphone since the sixth grade.
“She’s ready to graduate high school and she’s pretty much checked out, so she’s on the phone a lot,” Disney said. “With the younger ones, we try to limit it so they’re not on them all the time.”
When to get a child a cellphone and how to set parameters around its use are challenging questions for parents, especially as smartphone technology expands to include gaming, television, social media and even academics. While the products are marketed as cutting-edge tools that make daily life breezier, they also can disrupt actual connection and communication in families and derail social development if not used properly, experts warn.
On average, today’s children receive their first smartphone at age 10 – down from age 12 in 2012 – according to research firm Influence Central. The starter age for phones has dropped as parents grow more anxious about safety and their children’s whereabouts, said Richard Freed, a Walnut Grove psychologist and the author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.”
But there’s a big difference between basic phones that allow calls and texts, and smartphones that have access to the web, Freed said. The trend toward the latter has overtaken children and teens’ lives to the point of obsession, and in some cases addiction.
In his private practice, Freed sees families grappling with a long list of tech-induced conflicts, such as children falling behind in school because they’re up all night texting friends, or worse: harming themselves due to social media bullying.
“Kids are using eight hours of tech a day,” Freed said, citing a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. “That’s what today’s kids do. Yesterday’s kids rode a bike.”
Stephanie Huang Porter, an El Dorado Hills mom and former public relations specialist in the tech field, writes frequently on her parenting blog about how important it is for parents to set ground rules around cellphone use. Parents should be present in their children’s digital lives, she said, both to monitor for unsafe situations and to maintain authority.
“A lot of parents, because they aren’t familiar with it or didn’t grow up with it, let kids have free reign. And to me, that’s really dangerous,” she said. “If your kid is going to use Snapchat or use Facebook or use Instagram, you should … understand how that app works, so you can teach them to use it properly.”
If you’re thinking about putting an iPhone under the tree this year, here’s some advice on how to stay connected in a healthy way.
Never get a child a device without having a serious conversation in advance, Huang Porter said.
For young children or children who tend to be forgetful, that could mean providing a nonworking phone so they can practice not misplacing it. Starting with a basic phone before jumping to an iPhone can also help teach a child that it’s a responsibility and a privilege, she said.
When you do feel your child is ready for a smartphone, Huang Porter recommends having a long chat about social media conduct.
“We’ve talked a lot about what kind of person you want to be, and how do you want to present yourself (online),” she said. “We also talk about perspective and that your life isn’t just middle school. You want colleges and employers to see you as the best you can be.”
Once children are equipped with smartphones, parents need to take firm steps such as limiting daily minutes spent on the device to make sure tech addiction doesn’t take hold, Freed said.
If parents treat the phone as the child’s territory and don’t set rules, the child can get so attached to it that it alters their normal behavior, he said. That can result in tantrums and other inappropriate reactions when the phone is taken away.
Huang Porter also recommends removing phones from children’s bedrooms at night. Nighttime cellphone use has been shown to hurt sleep and eyesight.
“Parents can collect all the cellphones at night, and you can take them in the room and charge them and it’s fine. You’re the parents, you don’t have to be their buddy all the time.”
Set aside time
In a world where parents are often on their devices as much as children are, it can be difficult to stay tuned in emotionally, Freed said.
“People are alone together,” he said. “They may share the same space, but they’re not engaging at all with one another. … We’ve got a generation of kids experiencing higher rates of depression, cutting and suicide than ever before. … People still don’t quite understand that this old-fashioned notion of family is what they need most.”
In Huang Porter’s household, for example, cellphone use stops while the family is eating dinner or playing board games. Children must have face-to-face conversations while in the car although though exceptions are made during long road trips, she said.
Another tip? Make the phone part of the bonding experience. Ask a child to teach you a new game, or find something you can play against one another for fun.
“There’s nothing kids love more than to teach,” Huang Porter said. “My daughters love ‘Minecraft’ and I’m no good with games. Every now and then they get me to play and they laugh at me the whole time. It’s something kids really enjoy.”