Do you ever feel that you made the wrong decision as a parent?
Maybe your decision had unintended consequences. Maybe you made a decision based on the best information that you had available, but it just didn’t work out like you planned.
My wife and I experienced one of these situations last year, when we gave our daughter, Sarah, an iPhone for her 13th birthday.
We thought that it was the perfect gift. She’d been wanting one for a while and it would allow us to keep in touch with her by phone and text, and even keep track of her whereabouts.
We soon found out that children and technology don’t always mix quite the way we anticipate. You know where this is going…
The Shocking Unintended Consequences
Almost immediately her grades dropped from A’s and B’s to C’s, D’s, and F’s.
A little research into our Verizon account showed that she had sent and received over 4000 text messages in less than a month!
My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the sheer number of text messages, but soon learned that this wasn’t as ludicrous as it first seemed to me. A 2010 Pew Internet Survey indicates that 1 in 3 teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, or 3000 texts a month.
My daughter had also used about 3 GB of data, (75%) of our total data plan, in less than a month. Again, this is apparently not very surprising since the same survey indicates that 1 in 4 teens go online with cell phones.
How Could This Have Happened?
In hindsight the reason seems so simple — we gave Sarah a smartphone without setting any limits or putting any controls on it.
We expected a 13 year old to be mature enough to make good decisions about a highly advanced tech toy without any guidance from us.
This is really part of a bigger issue for us as parents.
How do we give our children the freedom to grow and mature, while at the same time setting limits that will keep them from hurting themselves?
The lines get particularly blurry when it comes to children and technology — where do we draw the line? And how can we anticipate the issues of giving something to our kids that didn’t even exist while we were growing up?
In general, we struggle with giving Sarah the freedom to make her own decisions — like most parents of teens do, I suspect. We encourage her to make as many decisions as possible and after she decides on something, we try to help her understand the results of both her good and not so good decisions.
But when it comes to technology, like our little smartphone incident showed, things get infinitely more complex.
So, What Did I Do About It?
When I discovered the problem, I did what any good father would do — I immediately seized control of her iPhone.
I called our cell phone provider and blocked all of her text messages. I restricted her phone’s access to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and any other app that could distract her.
I set the restrictions on her phone so that she could only access content approved for a 12 year old or below. I turned her smartphone into a device that could only be used for making phone calls.
There you go smart technology — I’ll show you who’s boss!
Yeah, not cool.
In all fairness though, isn’t that what any parent would do — totally overreact to protect our kids?
A Better Way to Handle the Situation
This situation taught me that I didn’t understand as much as I thought I did about children and technology. Because of this, I decided to educate myself on how teens are using their cellphones, and the bigger issue of how they use technology in general, including computers, video games, the Internet etc.
We live in a word that is exploding with new technology each day. And our children are going to be exposed to it no matter what.
As parents we need to make an intentional effort to figure out how our kids interact, use or abuse this technology. And look for ways to handle it in a positive way, so this does not turn into a source of constant tug of war and power struggles.
My better-late-than-never education has helped me develop a simple 6-step plan that not only let me give back my daughter her iPhone, but deal with future situations related to technology use in a more reasonable manner. I’m sharing it with you in the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes without having to go through the drama we did.
6 Steps to Handling Children and Technology
#1 Educate Yourself on the Latest in Technology
Today’s teens are more technology savvy than most parents will ever be. They have been exposed to electronic devices from an early age, and they master the technology much faster than we do. As parents, we must educate ourselves on how our children are interacting with this technology. Here are a few great places to start –
- On Guard Online
- Wired Safety
- Get Net Wise
- American Academy of Pediatrics Safety Net Initiative
- FBI Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety
#2 Talk to Your Child About Risks and Teach Them How to Be Safe
It is important for your child to know about the dangers that can be found online. Discuss these dangers with your child in an age appropriate manner, and work together as a family to minimize these risks by teaching them how to be safe.
- Teaching kids online security basics
- Cyber bullying conversation starters
- Facebook risks to discuss with teens
- NPR list of safe social media site for kids
#3 Create Realistic Rules Together
At first, in my over-protective dad mode, I limited my daughter’s access to the Internet so much that she was unable to use it to complete her homework assignments!
Instead of overreacting like I did, work together with your child to set realistic rules that limit their technology interaction. Here are a few great resources to get you started –
- A list of family media agreements — use any one on this list as a starting point for establishing rules that work in your family
- An ingenious way to manage media time using marbles
#4 Use Parental Controls
Use parental controls to protect your child from explicit content, and to monitor your child’s online activity. Here are a few resources that will help –
- Parental controls for Microsoft Windows
- Parental controls for iOS
- A review of the top 10 cell phone monitoring software tools
#5 Obtain Your Child’s Passwords
No matter how old your child is, it is important to obtain the passwords to your child’s cell phone and all of their online accounts. Since our children lack the maturity to handle online problems, we must take the responsibility for keeping them safe.
#6 Limit Multitasking
It is not easy for children growing up in today’s connected world. They are exposed to many things that we were not exposed to at their age. They also face more distractions than any generation before them.
It is not uncommon for teens to be texting, watching videos, listening to music, and trying to do their homework – all at the same time. According to this Kaiser Family Foundation report, kids now average 7 hours and 38 minutes a day plugged into media.
As parents, we need to limit these distractions so that they can focus on getting what they need to accomplish done.
The good news for us is that we were eventually able to work through these issues with Sarah. We were able to agree on reasonable limits, and she is now a high school student getting all A’s.
I hope that these tips will help you work with your children and the technology they use to figure out reasonable solutions too.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take the next 2-minutes to answer some of these simple questions –
- Imagine you open your phone/Internet bill and find out that your kids have run it up through the roof (either in overages, or by accidentally renting paid on-demand blockbusters). How would you react?
- What if you suddenly realized that this might explain the sudden degradation of your child’s school grades?
- Would your reaction help channel your kids towards better understanding their mistakes and preventing it in the future? Or would it invite power struggles?
- Now look around at all the technology your children are using. Which of these might cause unintended side-effects? How can you prevent a nasty situation from occurring in the first place?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Increase your understanding about the technology that your kids might be using. Find ways to start a conversation with your kids about staying safe. Establish clear limits on what is acceptable and what is not in terms of technology use, and get buy-in from your kids on these limits. And remember to stay open to discussion, should your child bring up something, irrespective of how unpleasant it might be!