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Smart Rules for Smartphones {and all social media}

Taming time on your tablet or smart phone can be difficult and always position parents as the bad guy. It can help if we understand the reasons why these limits are important, express them to our kids and set ground rules together. Here's some ways to sensibly keep screen time in check (and WHY it matters!)Smartphones are everywhere and it is not unusual to see very young kids playing on a tablet or watching older kids texting at every intersection. As parents, how do we navigate the inevitable conversations, develop reasonable rules, and lay down age-appropriate guidelines regarding smartphones? Hopefully this blog will give you some guidelines for addressing this important topic.

The use of tablets, internet, and social media in general is a hugely important topic for any parent. My wife Tammy and I have three kids. They are 16, 15, and 9 years old. We have been thinking through this for several years. We have made mistakes and found greater success as we adjusted our approach through trial and error.

As parents we had to think about how well we model responding to prompts from our phones as well as how and when we spend time in front of a screen. To be honest, at one extreme, we have been lazy at times, allowing our kids to binge on games or text during homework time (can you say electronic nanny?); on the other extreme, we have taken month-long fasts from electronics as a family to spend more time reading, playing games, and enjoying family time (can you say little house on the prairie?). Neither extreme is realistic or healthy long-term. That is why we have been working on guidelines that are reasonable and sustainable, helping our kids use their devices wisely. Whatever you decide to do it is best to agree as a couple or be consistent as a single parent in order that what you say should happen actually does happen.

So, when do you let your child use the family cell phone? Well, looking at your phone under your supervision could start quite early but what they watch and how long they have the phone is important. We typically let our 9 year old have the phone (or iPad) for 30 minutes on weekdays and for an hour on the weekends. Both our teens got assigned a family phone they call their own at age 15. That means it is our phone, not theirs, but they can carry it and use it to contact or text us throughout the day at school, or do homework, play a game, or text friends during certain hours of the day.

While there are filters for the web and restrictions on APPs, my kids’ showing of responsibility in handling these things well was very important in our decision as parents to give them access. We would have waited even longer if we had not seen that pattern of responsibility in school and at home, with friends, and with social media on the computer. Boundaries can always be broken and your kids showing responsibility is the litmus test for access and continued use. We would suggest that you research safeguards that limit access to certain sites and games and what is age-appropriate for your child before you grant any access.

What I’m proposing to you here is not the hard and fast rule of exactly what is best for your child and situation. Whether your child should have access to a phone or other electronic device is an important decision that should not be made without prayer, counsel, and conversation with your child.

I believe waiting until your child is 7 years old or above to even begin to interact with electronic games or entertainment that are age appropriate is a good start. By seven most kids have both cognitive and moral reason well enough developed to understand right and wrong. Most will also have enough self-control to understand how to accept their use as a privilege. Imagine taking a cell phone from a 2-3 year old when they are watching something they like. Now imagine helping your 9 year old to gain self-control by setting a 30 minute limit as they play Minecraft or their favorite game.

Nothing substitutes for knowing your child and adjusting rules to their maturity level. Our kids need to know we want them to succeed and our protection is in their best interest. It is rare for any child to wisely exert their intellect, moral reasoning, and/or self-control without close parental supervision and wise guidelines. As I share what we have tried, let me make a distinction between hard and fast rules and wisdom guidelines: Think of rules as tall fences (“Don’t text and drive!”). Think of guidelines as speedbumps (“No phones at the dinner table.”).

Here are 10 rules and 10 helpful guidelines I would suggest, with the caveat that some may need to be different in your home.

10 Rules For Smartphones and Social Media (violation means restricted use for days or weeks)

  1. Never text while driving a car.
  2. Never write a text or forward a photo that you wouldn’t want your mom or dad to see.
  3. Always ask before you forward a text or photo.
  4. Never post your cell phone number anywhere.
  5. Turn off location services and never broadcast your location.
  6. Never respond to numbers you don’t recognize.
  7. If someone asks you to send an inappropriate photo, say “No!” and talk to your parents about it.
  8. If you receive an inappropriate photo, delete it immediately and tell your parents; block the sender.
  9. Don’t download apps without your parents’ permission.
  10. Don’t use social media or electronic devices to bully or gossip.

10 Smart Guidelines For Smartphones and Social Media (violation means restricted use for hours or days)

  1. Demonstrate you have a life beyond your smartphone (I am not addicted to it).
  2. Turn in phones at a certain time each night (different times based on age)
  3. Kids must leave phones at a charging station in a public room in the house at night.
  4. No cell phones at the dining room table.
  5. No cell phones out of your backpack while you are in class.
  6. Don’t text someone in the same room. Talk face to face.
  7. Don’t wear your cell phone on your body (jury is still out but those waves can’t be good for you).
  8. No Snapchat type Apps that allow you to erase history.
  9. Parents can look at phone or take phone at any time.
  10. If you break it, you buy it.

I hope those are helpful to you as you discuss them with your spouse, your children, and others concerned with your children’s welfare. I would suggest a contract be developed especially with teens. Have them read it, ask questions, and sign it. From parenting 101, remember this: Don’t make a rule you don’t plan to enforce, and don’t implement a guideline that you can’t keep yourself. Ask God for courage and consistency as you implement your agreement or contract. If your kids are like mine they will say no other parent is as strict as you but your kids will be better off (and might even admit it once in a while) and you will sleep much better at night too. So be smarter than their smartphone and wiser than your tech savvy kids by proactively getting on this today.


Dr. Garrett Higbee


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