Parenting and Smartphones: the 3Ds

Dec 6, 2021 | children online, families, online safety, tech ethics

Parenting hasn’t got any easier over the last eighteen months. And where smartphones and the digital world are concerned, it’s been a real challenge. I’ve been delivering a lot of talks to parents in schools recently, so I’m sharing my current advice, summarised in a neatly alliterative ‘3Ds’ checklist:

#1 Delay – as long as you can

The first piece of advice for parents is to delay handing over a smartphone as long as you can and to stick to the no smartphones under 13 rule. There are several good reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that smartphones are the gateway to unsupervised access to social media. The age limit for all of these platforms is 13. The fact that it’s that age mainly to comply with advertising regulations, not for your child’s safety, should not deter you from sticking to it.

The other important reason is around impulse control and judgement. We know that these skills aren’t fully developed until the early 20s and the younger the person is, the less able they are to deploy the kind of critical thinking that will make the digital world safer for them to explore.

“Children don’t have as good self regulation as adults do…When kids describe their usage of Instagram, Facebook’s own research describes it as ‘an addict’s narrative’. The kids say ‘this makes me unhappy, I don’t have the ability to control my usage of it, and I feel if I left it would make me ostracised.

I am deeply worried that it may not be possible to make Instagram safe for a 14-year-old and I sincerely doubt that it is possible to make it safe for a 10-year-old.”

Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower

Parents often ask me how to hold this line when their child may be the only one in the year group not using a smartphone and struggling with feelings of social exclusion. My advice is that you should try and set up a group of parents in your child’s class and see if you can get a consensus not to hand out smartphones to any of them under 13. It’s very likely you’re all feeling the same way about parenting and smartphones, but you don’t want your child to be singled out.

I was speaking in a UK school recently and when I asked the class of 11-year olds which ones already had a smartphone, none of them put their hands up. I was obviously happy to see this, but (pleasantly) surprised. Afterwards, the Head Teacher took me to one side to explain this was because the parents had heard me speak the previous year on parenting and smartphones and had followed my advice. They’d come together as a year group and agreed not to give smartphones to their children until they turned 13. This was the first year group in the school who had done this and I have to say it absolutely made my day. What was interesting is that none of the children seemed bothered about it, I suspected this was because they all knew they were in the same boat. I shall be really interested to see the impact on this group of children as they move through school.

#2 Device – don’t make parenting all about it

A key piece of advice when you’ve handed over a smartphone is to not make your parenting all about the device – or succumb to what I call ‘parenting by smartphone’. If you’re not careful your relationship with your child can become overly focused on the device itself, not the positive behaviour you want to see. Conversations begin to revolve around how much time is allowed on the device, putting it away, removing it for breaches of behaviour etc. It starts to take on a totemic importance (in both your own and your child’s eyes) out of all proportion to the role it should be taking in your family.

parenting and smartphones
Focus on the positive behaviour you want to see, not the smartphone.

Instead, your approach with parenting and smartphones should be to focus on the positive behaviour you’d like to see, rather than on the phone itself. If family meals are becoming silent and soulless events because everyone is scrolling on their phones, if sleep is being missed through late-night screen time and children are grumpy as a result, if sport or playing outside is being cut short to rush back to a screen – focus attention on all of that and how to improve it.

Just don’t say “put that phone away”. When you do, your children’s eyes will invariable start rolling and their ears resolutely close (and this tends to happens to any adults you’re talking to about this too…).

#3 Discuss – persuasive tech with older kids

Older children are really interested in hearing about the tricks employed by persuasive technologists. When I speak in schools to teenagers, this is the stuff I really focus on, they are fascinated by it. In the same way that adults don’t like to feel they are being manipulated by software engineers, older children don’t like to feel that way either.

I talk about the attention economy, the fight being waged online for our eyeballs on screens, the tricks and techniques used to keep us all scrolling for longer than we intended and to pull us back to screens when we had resolved to log off. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma and my own podcast It’s Complicated are all good resources to suggest to young people to do their own information gathering.

With older children the best thing you can do is make sure they are fully informed, lay out the information available and then let them make the right decisions themselves. In many ways, they’re more likely than the adults in their lives to get a healthy digital balance, as they’ve had access to this information and education on the possible pitfalls at a younger age. With careful attention to forming healthy habits in their younger years, and a focus on education in the older ones, I’m hopeful they’re going to get it right.

My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open by Tanya Goodin

If you enjoyed my advice on parenting and smartphones and want to read more of my thoughts on how parents, adults and young people can all improve their relationship with tech, pick up a copy of my new book.