Parents have a love-hate relationship with firsts. Some they like: the first smile, the first steps, the first sleeping through the night. Others they dread: the first flu, the first tantrum, the first broken bone. As children get older, the firsts become more nuanced, generating both joy in our children’s independence and fear of their slipping away: the first summer away, the first date, the first driver’s license.
But few firsts generate more ambivalence than the first cellphone.
On one hand, many parents welcome this milestone. Now they can keep track of their children when they’re out and notify the children if they’re running late. Also, parents gain leverage. One mother told me, “I’ve found the phone has given me newfound power as a parent, because I can take it away!”
On the other hand, children tend to disappear through the looking glass when they get their first phone. They become vulnerable to the dark side of the Internet, and once comfortable routines get upended. “We used to be a family before they got phones,” one father complained. “Now we’re never together.”
(This challenge has taken on new urgency in New York this month as children can now carry cellphones to city schools after Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted a ban that had been enforced by the Bloomberg administration.)
How should parents handle this transition? Some discuss freedom and responsibility, hand over the device, then respond as situations arise. But others try to do more, laying down a set of rules.
The Obamas, for example, said they did not give their daughters cellphones until they were 12, barred their use during weekdays, kept the girls off Facebook until 17 and gave them what the first lady deemed “days of lectures” on the dangers of talking to strangers. Janell Burley Hofmann, a mother in Massachusetts, wrote her 13-year-old son a letter when he got his first phone listing 18 edicts, including: “If it rings, answer it. It is a phone. Say hello, use your manners. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ Not ever.”
The Internet is bursting with dozens of multi-plank contracts for parents to execute with their children. As the father of tweens, I like this idea, but I’m also realistic enough to know that a three-page contract will be swiftly ignored and even it can’t keep up with the last parent-avoiding app. What I craved was a handful of overarching rules that could guide our interactions.
Yalda Uhls, a psychologist at Common Sense Media and the author of the forthcoming “Media Moms & Digital Dads,” said parents should set guidelines in advance: “I believe that when you first give your child something that gives them unlimited access to the Internet and their friends, it is important to make it clear that you own the device, you pay for it, and if there is any behavior that you feel is not true to your family values, you can take it away.”
Part of this deal is that you will respect their boundaries, she said, but you also have the right to join any social network they join, know their passwords and check their texts. This can create awkward situations, she said, like when her daughter mentioned on a friend’s Instagram page how funny it was when he shoplifted. “I was horrified,” Ms. Uhls said, “but I chose to focus on the impact on him. ‘This is a public forum,’ I said. ‘His parents will be seeing this.’ ” She removed the comment.
Though it seems as if children know everything about social media, Ms. Uhls said, actually they’re still learning. “They’re so focused on themselves and their friends,” she said, “they don’t understand that other people are watching.”
Step Away From Your Phone
Of the 10 contracts I examined, one item appeared most frequently: “Phones will be turned off and put away at certain times of the night.” Research backs this up. A study from the University of Basel found that teenagers who kept their smartphones on at night were more likely to watch videos, text and have poor sleep habits and higher depression. Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor at the University of Denver and the author of “The Parent App,” told me that setting physical limitations may be easier than enforcing time restrictions.
“When parents say, ‘You can use the phone only from this hour to this hour,’ it’s hard to manage,” she said. She recommends that all phones go in a box by the door when children enter the house, or all devices go in the center of the table during mealtimes, including at restaurants.
“Whatever rules you adopt,” she said, “make sure you put the chargers in a public place, so the phones have to be out of their possession at night.”
Read Every Text Twice
One role of parents is to explain that digital communication can easily be misconstrued. Ken Denmead, the publisher of GeekDad.com and the author of several books, said that he tells his teenage sons that text-based conversations have no emotional nuance unless you take the extra step to insert it. “You can use smileys and emoticons to add flavor to what you’re saying,” he said. “It’s also about word choice or adding #enthusiastic. The bottom line: Before you send a message, go back and read it without context. Consider if that exclamation point could be read as aggressive.”
The Grandmother Rule
Everyone agrees on the need to prevent children from sexting, bullying or posting something inappropriate. But how to convey that? One parent told me she requires her children to put potential posts on the refrigerator and get a majority vote from the family. Mr. Denmead tells his sons, “Always pretend you’re speaking in front of a crowd.”
Ms. Uhls recommended giving children a visual. “Think about your grandmother,” she said. “Think about the principal. Think about the most embarrassing adult in your life. Before you hit send, reflect on how that person would react.” My daughters independently suggested the same rule, and when I asked what the consequences should be for violating it, they said, “Actually show the post to Grandma!”
No Phones at Family Time
Everybody I spoke with had certain rules about family time. Ms. Uhls said: “When I was younger and took parenting classes, everybody said, ‘Just 10 minutes on the floor with the children.’ Now I say the same thing. ‘Just 10 minutes. No devices. That’s our time together.’ ”
In Mr. Denmead’s family, the first 20 minutes of every car ride are reserved for conversation. After that, devices can be plugged in. “I think we’re overly nostalgic for ‘spot the license plate,’ ” he said. “It’s just a substitute for abject boredom.”
Ms. Schofield Clark went so far as to add family time to the contract she wrote with her children. That item reads: “We will have weekly technology-free activities, like hiking, biking or walking the dogs. Occasionally, we will take technology-free retreats, like when fishing or camping.” The contract also includes weekly movie night, with the proviso, “When Mom watches horror or fantasy films, she’s not allowed to say, ‘Ewww,’ ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Gasp!’ ”
Do Unto Yourself
One surprising thing I heard about these agreements: They should include restrictions on the parents, who are the most egregious technology abusers of all. Ms. Schofield Clark’s daughter insisted on the clause, “When I have something to say, Mommy has to close the laptop and listen.”
Her son added a rule. Beginning when her children were young, Ms. Schofield Clark took their photo with Santa every Christmas. She forced them to do it when they were teenagers, then posted the photo on Facebook. Within seconds, her otherwise hibernating 14-year-old son came bolting from his bedroom. Their agreement now includes the plank, “If Mom wants to post a photo with a kid in it, she needs to ask.”
This story also holds perhaps the final lesson of managing media in families: No technology agreement can be written in stone. It needs to be revised with every new child, every new phase, every new device and every new app.