Kids, Screens, and the Smartphone Age: What’s a Parent to Do?

How I learned from my mistakes about what works and what doesn’t over the past 25 years

How I learned from my mistakes about what works and what doesn’t over the past 25 years.

When I designed the interiors of the homes we renovated in 1996 and 2005, my focus was on how to create spaces for myself, my husband and our three daughters that would promote togetherness while at the same time giving everyone a place to be private and quiet.

I vowed to keep the screens in public spaces. I wanted to monitor their use at all times. I needed to keep the girls safe from inappropriate information. In those days it was easy; screens were heavy — literally. You needed countertops and desks that could support PCs that weighed 10lbs.

In 1996, I converted a laundry room on the first floor into a kid’s study with three tiny desk areas that fit a small child’s chair. Each desk had a Dell PC. There, my girls sat together and learned math and vocabulary from computer discs like Math Blaster! and Reader Rabbit. That was the extent of the ’screen time’ I had to worry about. My husband and I chose not to buy Sony GameBoys — can you imagine that they named them ‘boys’? — or a game console.

Teaching the girls self-awareness and self-discipline in the face of exciting temptations was an important part of parenting.

In those days, you could limit screen time through your purchasing decisions. Just don’t buy it. I remember that one concern I’d had was whether to let my daughters have a playdate with someone whose home was full of unsupervised screens.

We moved 10 years later when the girls were in middle and high school so I needed to plan for more serious studying spaces. The internet was a double-edged sword; its presence was both an academic advantage — search engines — and a new social distraction — Facebook.

How could I keep them from bouncing between the two and losing focus?

I used a hall between their bedrooms and added built-in desks — this time adult-sized — where I could see the screens if I walked by. That’s where we plugged in the computers. I can’t promise that Facebook was not opened during those homework periods, but I do know that the possibility of my walking by was a deterrent. The TVs were still only in shared spaces and I allowed them to be watched only on non-school nights.

Then laptops and cell phones took over the world.

The girls were now sequestered in their bedrooms, able to chat and even watch TV on their screens. My walking into the bedroom often led to a quick hitting of the ‘esc’ button. I had to find a new way to influence and to monitor their use of screens, now that I could no longer keep them in public spaces.

Parenting in the age of portable screens

I started by thinking about how I had dealt with other issues that I had lost control over.

When the girls started spending time away from me at pre-school and playdates, I lost control over what they said. For example, I no longer could correct them if they didn’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

When the girls started second grade, they no longer came home with written homework instructions. I could no longer ensure that they were completing all of their homework because I had to rely on them to tell me what had to be done.

When the girls started making their own ‘playdates’ with children at school, rather than visiting homes of parents whom I had met first, I could no longer influence with whom they spent time away from me.

In each of these instances, and in many, many more that hit me like a ton of emotional bricks, I had to let go of control and still find a way to help them make the choices that would keep them safe and develop their character.

Values-based parenting vs. Rules-based parenting

I learned very quickly that creating rules that can’t possibly be enforced is a waste of time. No matter the tone of my voice or how much I “acknowledged and described”, I was creating rules basically as a shortcut to control their behavior. It never worked.

I learned that the only way I could teach the girls the self-awareness and self-discipline that I believed would help them make good choices for themselves depended on communicating my values in conflict-free conversations.

  1. As soon as you can’t consistently enforce a rule, have a conversation about consequences.

My kids responded much better when I explained why I wanted to set limits. When they imagined how the future could be affected by the choices they made in the present, they started to self-regulate. My work was in understanding that it was the fear of those consequences that drove me to try and control their behavior. Those conversations forced me to deal with my own fears first — eg. their academic performance or their social lives.

2. Think alongside your child, not for your child

I learned to prepare for those conversations with a series of questions — why is it so important to read a text as soon as it’s written? Is there a way that the digital game is manipulating you to keep playing? How does it make you feel to when you have to rush through an assignment after spending more time than you wanted to on Snapchat? Listening to the answers helped me ask more questions which guided their thinking. When they came up with the path they would take themselves, they were much more willing to follow it.

3. Share your own challenges

I am not as productive at work when I’m distracted; in fact, I am most comfortable in a silent space. I have a hard time avoiding my email. I spend too much time in the mornings reading various articles online. Sharing my own struggles with screen time give my kids the opportunity to help me so that they see that we are all dealing with the same issues.

Looking back, I was scared by the introduction of new and more mobile technologies. I saw social media and smartphones as a threat to the outcomes I was seeking for my daughters. In retrospect, those concerns were exaggerated. It turned out that as my daughters grew up and became more and more independent from me, I needed to use more thoughtful strategies. I learned that one-way rules don’t guarantee their safety. Authoritative supervision gives them no room to learn from their own choices — both the good and the bad. Technology and screen time are like many other intrusions from the outside world that affect our children’s lives; they can lead to deeper conversations and more interaction between me, my husband and my daughters.

And that is the best outcome of all.

Originally published at

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