Kids & Technology: What’s Missing from the Conversation

After writing this piece called Common Sense Rules About Teens & Apps, I got a call from a school in my town that wanted me to come speak to their parents about how to establish those rules with teens (beyond what I wrote about). I had all kinds of ideas about what being a school administrator would be like when I first started doing this job. At first, I assumed that it would be mostly dealing with students and teachers, but it surprised me to learn to a lot of it was working with parents. Since that time, technology has changed so rapidly that I’ve begun working with parents on monitoring it for their children, especially when it negatively affects students in the classroom or their adolescent development. When I first started working as a school administrator, I didn’t foresee this aspect of my job; educating not just students but their parents on the negative effects of technology. As times have changed so quickly, we have entered an age where kids are exposed to new forms of technology at younger ages. We have to be aware of both the negative and positive realities of this. If we’re going to give children more access to technology, then a dialogue between parents and children is the next logical step. 

Recently I was supervising one of the three lunch shifts I monitor daily and took an informal poll. I started asking my students what they were most excited about for Christmas. I wasn’t surprised to learn that they answered by asking for technology as presents, nor did it shock me that many were going to ask for new smartphones. My students talk to me about their phones regularly, as well as what apps they use and what they think about the rules their parents put in place.

Here’s what does shock me, though: many parents don’t put any rules in place other than not to go over their minutes.

“Do they take your phone away from you as a consequence when you misbehave?”

“No.”

“Are you allowed to keep your phone on during the school day and at night in the privacy of your bedroom?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have limits on what apps you can download?”

“No.”

Of course, this isn’t every parent, but from what I can gather from the students’ self-reporting, there isn’t a lot of monitoring save for turning their phones over to their parents occasionally so they can see what they’ve been doing. One 7th grade girl recently told me that her mom requires her to turn over her phone about once a month but right before she gives it to her she deletes all the apps she doesn’t want her mom to see and just adds them back once it’s returned to her. That’s the kind of thing that reminds me of just how much more complicated it is to be a parent in this age of technology, and I haven’t even mentioned cyber-bullying or sharing inappropriate photos.

On the other hand, when talking to parents, I get a lot of frustration from them about feelings of helplessness. It seems that many parents, after they’ve decided to give their child a smartphone, hand it over with a generic set of rules and then feel powerless and impotent in handling the new found responsibility their children have. But when we give children that much authority, they believe they have the right to use the phone at their discretion and with abandon. Smartphones are tiny computers that fit in their pants pocket. What rules, I ask parents, come with using the home computer? Those should apply to the cell phone as well even when everything coming at you feels like you’re swimming in a vortex of too much information.

According to the data collected by Common Sense Media in this infographic, since 2011 the number of kids using mobile devices has doubled from 38% to 72%.

Here are the computer rules we followed in my house when my children were in middle and high school:

1. They must remain in public areas and can’t be taken into bedrooms.

2. Hours of use are after school until 9 pm. After that, it gets turned off for the night.

3. No downloading or changing the applications without prior approval.

Granted, this is more difficult to instill in tweens and teens now that the “computer” they have is in the form of a smartphone and they can take it anywhere. One of the more obvious ways that educators are seeing the effects of the rampant phone use is in how tired students are during the day at school. Again, they report to me that if they wake up in the middle of the night they reach over and get on their phones right away. Adults do this, too, I’m sure, but at least we have coffee to get us through the day when we start to nod off. (Forget it, I take that back. I see plenty of kids with coffee drinks these days.) 

There are more resources than parents may think on how to monitor their child’s internet and smartphone usage, as well as services that help us make their phones a safer tool to use. A service like Zact Mobile, for instance, allows you to customize a plan that works for your family and set up parental controls to put your mind at ease. (It even has the Disney stamp of approval!) Think you can’t follow my rules? Zact Mobile allows you to set curfews and approve app downloads, making it easy for all parents to be proactive and in control.

Working with students will always be my favorite part of my job, but I have to change with the times just as much as the students and parents do. If I had any advice to give to parents about this based on my experiences it would be that none of us can escape the dangers of overexposure to technology. There really can be too much of a good thing and that’s coming from someone who LOVES technology and works at a magnet school for it.

Everything that is good about it is good in moderation. If you’re considering purchasing something technological for your children for Christmas this year I would advise that we support them by offering boundaries with it. The lessons we teach our children are valuable and have a price on them, too, just like the cost of buying smart phones and tablets and computers that can access the Internet. Since we’re the best teachers for our children, it’s important to lead by example. That’s why, after having my laptop in front of me for the past 2 hours, it’s time to get off and do something with my children that gives us quality time together.

For more information on managing your child’s smartphone use, see what the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests here.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

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