Mobile parenting

Talking points for rule making – or not – depending on how people in your family live life and use digital media and tech

By Anne Collier

There are some good mobile parenting pointers on the Web these days, one example being “Five things to do before giving your teenager a smartphone.” But – practically speaking – these are just useful talking points in the broader, on-going conversation families need to have about how social-media tools like phones can be used to connect with others kindly, meaningfully, and successfully in everybody’s very fast-paced lives. These little full-blown connected computers called smartphones can do so many things that they have appeal for different reasons and are used in different ways based on who the owner is and where s/he is in her life (though their small size and huge portability appeal pretty universally!). Which is why some rules work well for a while, but two-way conversations work better than set rules. And it’s wise to choose not to be “skittish,” as writer and “appolicious advisor” Brad Spirrison put it, because parental anxiety can put a real damper on communication.

[Pew Internet tells us 77% of US 12-to-17-year-olds now have cellphones and 23% smartphones, so if your 12-year-old tells you “everybody has a cellphone,” s/he’s less and less far off the mark. But when to get a kid his or her first cellphone is very individual too, based on how s/he handles technology, people, and responsibility!]

So I’m not sure anyone could come up with the exact right set of rules for everybody. It would be a huge set. Better to work from the kid (and parent) out: Why do I want her to have a phone? What would he use the phone for? Gaming (individual or social)? Being better organized? Socializing, mainly? How is he with peers and are they good to each other? What sort of balance is there between self-control and rules at this point in this kid’s experience? Just a few talking points (you’ll find more here, at

Ideas for rule making – or not

Interestingly, Brad chose to focus four of his five tips (I love his fifth one about staying positive) on just two aspects of kids’ smartphone use: basically, physical and financial safety. All good, but if I were to prioritize those, I’d start right off with texting while driving, statistically the most widespread and risky use of cellphones there is (see this), whether our kids are drivers or passengers (one good rule for everybody in every family: nobody texts while driving!). His pointers around check-ins are smart. But for kids in their mid-to-late teens, an outright ban probably isn’t realistic or necessary, as long as critical thinking’s applied and they check into places only when they’re with friends, ideally a bunch of them.

There are lots of other rules more specific to trouble spots in your own kids’ phone use. For example, if they’re not getting enough sleep, could it be that it’s being interrupted by a phone still on in the middle of the night so they can receive texts and notifications from friends who also aren’t getting enough sleep? That may call for a rule that phones are off and charged somewhere else in the house (maybe even your room) every night. Does someone need to think more about how others in their presence feel about someone texting right in the middle of a conversation? Then maybe there needs to be a no-texting-during-meals rule, or one about excusing oneself if an expected “important text” is received? Maybe a blanket rule about no phone photo-shooting happens during parties at this house so people can learn to respect how others feel about being tagged in embarrassing photos (see this, BTW, about taking control of tagging). Customized rules like these yield greater success because designed to show kids proper care and respect for themselves and others. They’re clearly not just about cellphones.

Because all of this is much more about our humanity than our technology, here are some tips for parenting in a very mobile, digital, networked age:

* Try to be open-hearted & open-minded – share curiosity, not fear!
* Talk with them, listen more, take an interest, but also…
* Give them some space and some trust.
* Let them know we have their backs.
* Think as much about what we’re modeling for them as about rules.
* Treat their media – and media use – as consequential, not trivial.
* Support their agency & efficacy – they are stakeholders in their own and each other’s well-being online and offline. See them as agents of social good in the world.

Related links

* “Surge in kid apps: Parents & providers sorting it out”
* “Teens keep texting more, talking less”
* “Growing signs social media are good for us”
* “The wisdom of Finn, 10”
* “Only sometimes ‘alone together’ in the same room”

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