By Elizabeth Englander and Katharine Covino, coauthors of You Got a Phone! (Now Read This Book)
More and more often, children get their first phone when still in elementary school. A 2017 study found that more than half of kids had their first phone by the end of fifth grade. Phones for kids can make life a lot more convenient for parents, but there are risks involved in carrying these devices. We know that smartphones with kids can mean more time on a screen and less time playing with friends. Too much use can lead to obesity, eye trouble, and/or sleep problems. Kids sometimes find it harder to make or keep friends and can struggle with feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. Phones can even be a safety risk.
For these reasons, it is natural for you to have mixed feelings about getting your young child their first phone. But there are many positive reasons too. For example, you may worry about your child’s safety if they walk home alone, or you may want them to be able to socialize online with friends. So, mixed feelings or not, you may be thinking of getting your child their first phone, possibly as soon as September, before they head back to school.
And that decision may be a source of stress because you know that just handing this powerful device to your child can spell trouble. But there are lots of resources that can help your child learn to use their new phone in a safe and healthy way. We even wrote a funny, engaging book about it to help them learn the ins and outs of owning their first digital device.
Many of the problems that kids experience with phones can be avoided through education, creating savvy kids who know their way around a digital device. And by savvy, we don’t mean kids who know how to navigate their device or download an app. We mean kids who understand that phones are best used in moderation, that they can lead to problems and misunderstandings between friends, and that a little bit of prevention goes a long way.
This post is chock-full of practical tips, all based on scientific research, that can help your child use digital devices in a safe and healthy way. (And you can check out our book for more!) Here are a few tips you can discuss with your child:
1. Texting for Beginners: A How-To Guide
Talk to your child about the differences between chatting with someone in real life versus texting or messaging them on a phone. Discuss the ways nonverbal communication (seeing someone’s face or hearing someone’s tone of voice) can help you understand both what the person is saying and what they mean. Misunderstandings can happen without these important clues. Being aware of the potential for misreading a conversation can help new phone users avoid muddled misunderstandings and messy magnifications.
2. Ask First! Taking and Sharing Pictures
Discuss the reasons why it is important to ask others before taking, sharing, and posting pictures. Children might not realize that sharing a funny picture of a friend could be hurtful. They may need guidance about why it’s important to check in with others, and they may need clear language and modeling for how to do so.
3. Keeping Private Information Private
Studies show that children often think what they type, text, and share on the internet is private. Talk to them about how the internet is not private. Help reinforce the idea that just as they would never share their name, address, or birthday with a stranger at the mall or the beach, they should not share anything personal or private online. Once information is posted or shared, it can stay online forever.
4. Shaking a Bad Case of FOMO
Your child probably already knows how fun and awesome phones are. They may have been asking for one for a while. But it’s important to also discuss how sometimes phones can cause stress or anxiety. This can be the case if kids see that their friends are all doing something fun. They may feel anxious, sad, and left out. They may even develop a case of FOMO. Help your child understand that what gets posted online is the highlight reel—the best moments of the best days. Then, brainstorm ways to feel better. Maybe go for a walk outside together or set up an activity with another friend.
5. Striking a Healthy Balance
A new phone can quickly become a new obsession. Talk to your child about ways to maintain a good balance. Just like one piece of chocolate cake is amazing, but twenty-four pieces would be disastrous, a short period of time on the phone is great, but too many hours would be terrible. Kids may not know that certain apps or aspects of their phone use are designed to be addictive. Talk to your child about ways to use (and not abuse) their new phones. Discuss and agree about rules for how and where the phone can be used. Some folks prefer no phones in bedrooms, no phones at the dinner table, or no phones after a certain amount of time. All these approaches can encourage kids to take a healthier, more moderate approach to phone use.
Elizabeth Englander is a college professor who has spent more than 25 years doing research and thinking about ways to help kids be happier, less worried, and make more friends as they grow up. She’s written eight books and about a hundred really nerdy, technical articles in research journals. She likes writing, riding her bike, and very noisy power tools. She has an equally nerdy husband and three kids and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Katharine Covino is a college professor who teaches teachers how to teach. She’s been a teacher for almost 20 years. She’s interested in finding ways of helping young teachers who are just starting out. She also writes about her work asking young kids interesting and tough questions. She believes that all students should be able to see themselves reflected in the books and stories they read. When she’s not teaching or writing, Katharine tries to keep up with her kids. Despite her very best efforts, they are all faster swimmers, hikers, and skiers than she is. She also tries to make them laugh, and sometimes she is successful. Katharine lives near Boston, Massachusetts.
Elizabeth and Katharine are coauthors of You Got a Phone! (Now Read This Book)
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