Parenting Help

Are SmartPhones & Social Media Too Dangerous for My Kids? 

Dynamic ImageI don’t know which is worse, the parent who just hands their 12-year-old a SmartPhone with no guidance whatsoever, or the parent who denies their 17-year-old access to any social media or technology whatsoever because “It’s the devil!”

I’ve seen both extremes. Neither turns out well.

What is the answer? Think about it. If you could wave your magic wand and make your kid turn out perfect… what would that look like? Would they own a phone? Would Snapchat be one of their go-to apps? Would they ever post selfies?

In a world where little boys see too much, and little girls post too much… is it even possible for young people to learn to text, Tweet, and Insta responsibly? If so, how can we teach them this… and model this?

Is it impossible to picture your kids someday sitting in a college dorm using their phone to merely look up a homework assignment, check their work schedule, post a picture of their new coffee mug, and text you before bed, “I love you Mom!”?

Maybe this picture is a little easier to fathom if we had a realistic idea of what responsible mobile-device use looks like in our homes? In other words, what are helpful guidelines today’s parents can implement? More importantly, what do these conversations look like?

Here are 5 steps parents can take to help their kids learn to be responsible with their mobile devices:

1. Give Them the Head’s Up
It’s okay to say “No” when your 10-year-old asks you if they can have their own iPad, or when your 14-year-old wants to be able to download any app they want without you knowing… but just let them know why, and let them know when they get to make this decision on their own.

Communicate your plan from the very beginning. When they’re young and begging you for their first device, let them know:

“Maybe soon, but just understand one thing: when you first get your device, your use of it is going to be limited. But as you get older, you’ll get more and more freedom with it. Our goal is that by your senior year of high school you will have full control.”

I tried this with my daughters, letting them know they could look forward to “No Rules at 17½.” At 13 they thought we were really strict, but by 17 they had demonstrated incremental independence. Here’s how it turned out. (Author/speaker Andy Stanley was interviewed last year and declared a similar approach.)

The key is communication. I spend quite a bit of time laying out what these conversations look like and even what some of these boundaries are at different ages in my book, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, helping parents decide these boundaries and communicate them to their kids clearly as they implement them.

What are some of these boundaries? Glad you asked. Keep reading.

2. First Device at 12
For years experts have been recommending parents wait until their kids are age 12 to give them their own mobile devices. Notice I didn’t just say “phones.” When I say devices I mean tablets, iTouch, laptops… especially devices that allow them access to the Internet and social media.

I’m not alone in this age recommendation. In fact, most experts recommend kids do not begin using social media until age 13. Most social media platforms require kids to be 13 to sign up because of the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prevents sites from collecting select information from kids under 13. Parents who allow their kids to sign up before then are allowing them to lie about their age.

I realize this is difficult when every other parent out there is giving their kids devices before they cut their first tooth. Our kids are sure to complain, “But Chris has his own iPad!”

This is where parents need to stop and ask themselves, “What is my role?” If you want to be the friend parent, or “peerant,” who gives into their kid’s every whim… then by all means, give em’ a phone. If you see your role as the Sherpa who will guide them along the road to adolescence successfully to adulthood, then wait until they’re 12. Even then you don’t just hand it to them. In fact…

3. No Secrets
Create a climate of continual conversation about social media and screen entertainment. Walk with them as they set up their first online profiles, teach them online privacy settings and give them guidance on who to select as online friends.

In the past I recommended parents knew their kids’ passwords so Mom and Dad could do precisely what their doctor recommended, monitoring exactly what websites and social media their kids were using. Sadly, demanding a password can create a parent-vs.-teen dynamic. Never a good thing. And frankly, I’ve found if today’s kids want to sneak… they will sneak. It’s much better to create an environment of open communication and “no secrets.”

I’ll be honest. This takes time. Good parenting takes time. Parents tend to lean on rules that will do the parenting for them. It doesn’t work. Nothing replaces good ol’ fashioned conversation.

“Dad, I want Instagram.”

“Cool. Let’s check it out.”

And if you don’t know anything about Instagram, then Google “Instagram safety tips” or “Instagram privacy settings” and see what people are recommending. Help your tween understand these settings, after all, your plan is to equip them to choose these kinds of settings on their own in just a couple years. Explain to them why it’s good for a 12-year-old to use privacy settings so creepy naked old men can’t see their posts. It’s also good to teach them to never friend people they haven’t met. Yes, that good looking 18-year-old in Huntington beach is actually that same creepy naked old man!

Engage in regular check-ins, reviewing their privacy settings and seeing who their online friends are. Don’t be a parole officer, looking for malfeasance. Be a guide, looking to encourage and offer advice where needed.

If your kids don’t like these conversations, offer them the alternative: Mom and Dad have the passwords and check their phone on demand. Guess which one they’ll choose?

But we also need to…

4. Limit Screentime
Your family doctor has been recommending this for years. And in a world where young people average almost 9 hours per day in entertainment media and technology, this is no easy task. But help your kids not fall victim to playing 7 hours of video games on a school night. Sit down and talk about some realistic guardrails together and decide what is fair.

One of the best ways to naturally control screen time is by…

5. Seek Out No-Tech Time
This summer my brand new book hits the shelves, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kids. This book was uniquely exciting to write, because it is a collection of “venues” or “settings” parents have successfully used to engage in face-to-face communication with their kids.

Think of the time where you were driving down the road with your kid, or putting them to bed, or sitting down for a meal… and for one reason or another your kid wasn’t staring at their phone, but truly engaged in meaningful conversation. Sounds like a dream come true, right? If you’re a parent today then you know it can be difficult to get a teen to lift their eyes from their mobile device and actually dialogue. So my advice is simple. Seek out these natural settings where the phone is put away:


  • Dinner
  • Bedtime
  • Sitting in the hot tub
  • Exercising
  • Hunting, fishing, boating…
  • Baking (sticky hands and phones don’t mix)

Seek out these arenas where your kids don’t really even need to be told, “Put your stupid phone down!”…but naturally start talking.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just released their new list of media tips for parents, and several of the tips encourage parents to “create tech free zones” and “seek out face-to-face time.” Experts are realizing how important it is for parents to seek out one-on-one time.

It’s a little scary when you start reading the research about exactly how damaging a smartphone is becoming to a generation who barely knows life without it. How will they ever learn responsibility if we don’t teach them?

Guess who has the best opportunity to teach this?

Guess who can best model this?

Are you having these conversations?

If you found this article helpful, you’ll enjoy The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices. Each chapter includes discussion questions engaging kids in conversation about the pics they’re posting, the comments they’re making, and the content they’re streaming. 

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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