Q: I have a set of twins, ages 11 soon to be 12. My son has Asperger’s Syndrome and my daughter has ADHD. They both have a natural affinity for screens and are very rule-oriented. My daughter very much wants a smartphone, as “everyone” at middle school has one and she wants to fit the image.
My question is, do I buy them phones now while they are still receptive to what I have to say (their friends currently don’t play a big role in their decisions)? Or do I wait till they are in high school, when they are more mature but possibly not as open to my suggestions and feedback?
A: This is a great question and one that many parents of tweens, (and even younger children) face in the age of the smartphone. The most essential part of your decision and your management of your children’s screen use is to treat not only smartphones, but all electronic devices, from TVs to tablets, as tools.
It sounds as though you are already being mindful and aware of your children’s media use and the potential implications of that use. Keep in mind that it is just as important for your children to use these tools in ways that expand their world (watching a documentary film) and enhance their humanity (using Skype in school to communicate with students in another part of the world), as it is to protect them from harmful use or wasting their time.
Your daughter’s reasoning, that she needs to have a smartphone because everyone else her age has one, is not a valid argument. This logic does not recognize the smartphone as a tool, rather it sees it as a status symbol, a way to “keep up with the Joneses” as they used to say. Instead, help both of your children to see the smartphone as a powerful tool, a tool to be used for specific purposes and to be put away when the intended task is complete.
Ask both your children to tell you their own reasons for needing a smartphone and their plan for how they will use it. This allows for open discussion between you and your children about what you expect (or the “rules” you have for them, if that is a better fit for their needs). Be sure to include in those expectations the following:
- What they will use the smartphone for (homework, contacting you, etc.).
- What they will not use the smartphone for (e.g., contacting people they don’t know through social media, cyberbullying, sexting, etc. – you need to speak explicitly to these issues, uncomfortable as they may be, because they will be exposed to them and need to know how to respond).
- When they will use the smartphone (e.g., when doing their homework, if needed, after school to contact you, etc.).
- When they will not use the smartphone (e.g., before bed, during family meals, during the night, etc.).
Finally, let them know that having a smartphone is a responsibility as well as a privilege. That responsibility includes self-regulation, not just at the beginning, but whenever they have a phone. This means they need to show you that they will use a smartphone mindfully, moderate their use, and follow your expectations without you needing to constantly enforce them. And have them suggest appropriate consequences should they fail. This helps them to understand that failing is often the way we learn and to take ownership of their responsibility.
After your discussions, you can better judge whether your children are ready to have their own smartphones. Remember that it really is not about the device, but what we do with the device that matters. If you can introduce that concept to all of their electronic screen use, you will be helping your children build an internal structure of self-regulation that will, in time, replace the external regulation you’ve been providing all along.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,