I’ve decided my son will not be given a mobile phone until he graduates high school. Over the past several years I have observed what a tight grip these devices have on children; how the apps and games monopolize their attention and create the conditions for distracted learners. And I know all too well how phones can serve as a medium for negativity, disinformation, or even danger. A recent article from psychologist Angela Duckworth indicates smartphones are indeed the most overpowering temptation in the lives of teens. To be fair, I also recognize that online platforms are how children stay connected, and that now, more than even, this can act as a support. My son is also a year old, so it’s easy for me to stand atop my soapbox!
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a virtual Parents’ Auxiliary meeting, and many of the questions posed were directly related to teenagers and their phones. It was a suggestion from one parent that prompted me to consider writing this article, and I’ve decided to frame it around some ideas for parents concerned about healthy device use. Recognizing that holding off until graduation is likely not feasible for most, here are some suggestions to consider with your child and their phone.
The first step to helping your child safely navigate the online world is to talk about it openly and regularly. Find out which apps they are using and what kinds of content they are seeing out there. Have they experienced anything that made them uncomfortable? Has anyone who they aren’t acquainted with tried to contact them? How does spending time on social media or gaming make them feel afterwards? How much time are they spending on their phone each day (hint: all phones now have a feature built in that shares screen time information, and this may be an eye opener!)?
This one may be less applicable as children get older, but having passwords shared and regularly looking in on your child’s accounts is a good idea. If this is a regular routine, your child will be more conscious about what they post and how their digital footprint takes shape. Check whether your child has more than one account on a given platform, as it is now common to have a ‘clean’ account to show parents and a second account – sometimes called their ‘Finsta’ account – where they can operate parent-free.
Consume Nutritious Content
Think of screen time like you are planning a balanced meal. Some nutritious options include generating novel, creative content, such as digital art or coding, consuming curated educational content, and using communication apps to stay in touch with friends and family. The sugary snacks of screen time include mindless social media scrolling, immersive games with low educational value, and endless YouTube video viewing. A little junk time is fine, but be sure your child eats their vegetables.
Be Tech Savvy
It is also helpful for parents to have a baseline understanding of the apps and games children are using, and some of the associated risks. Snapchat is an app expressly designed for messages, pictures and videos to disappear immediately after sending (what could go wrong?). Except they don’t always disappear. Unfortunately, we know teenagers are sending inappropriate messages via Snapchat with increasing regularity. Some of these messages contain inappropriate language which could be perceived as offensive, and even considered bullying. Others contain private images not intended to be shared. Sadly, there have been documented cases in the media of students sharing or distributing such images, which is a criminal offence, and something SMUS has stressed to our student community. It is never safe (or wise) to send messages or images on social media platforms that you would not be comfortable with the entire world seeing. Private communication on these platforms simply doesn’t exist.
Another app to look out for on your child’s devices is called Omegle. This is an anonymous messaging platform people use to chat with strangers, and it seems to be making a resurgence in the teen demographic. Omegle poses significant dangers and its own legal disclaimer warns that predators have been known to use it. Discord is a similar app that is more widely used, and while it tends to be safer than Omegle, parents should still be aware of the types of groups their children are joining and who they may be communicating with.
It is important to recognize that social media and online communication are here to stay, and can be a positive outlet for students. In fact, the majority of experiences can be good ones, and a strong digital skill set will be essential to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Like so many other challenges with kids, a safe, sensible approach is likely preferable to abstinence. Embrace the good, and educate children on the risks.
With brilliant engineers and behavioural scientists designing phones and apps intended to hook their users, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that screens make it difficult for students to focus during class or while studying. Homework is no match for constant alerts and an endless stream of beautiful, perfectly curated content. One of the most effective strategies is to make phones less accessible. Creating intentional space between the user and phone achieves this, including charging devices in a different room at night or stashing it somewhere out of sight while studying. Even keeping phones in students’ bags during class is preferable to their pockets, but locking them away is still the best option.
Another trick in the same vein is making the phone itself less enticing by turning off notifications, or switching it to black and white mode. For the new iPhones, three clicks of the right button switches the screen to monochrome, making it less visually appealing. Every little bit helps.
Keep the Phones at Home
If all else fails, and parents know their students are not managing their phones well, consider keeping the devices home while your child is at school. Laptops perform virtually all the same educational functions with far fewer distractions. Safety is often cited as a reason children should carry phones, but I would offer that today’s dangers tend to lurk online far more than on playgrounds or on the street.
The SMUS Approach
At our school, students from Kindergarten to Grade 10 are expected to not have their phones with them. If they must be brought to school, students are asked to leave them in their lockers for the duration of the school day. Grade 11s and 12s may use phones, but are asked to keep them off-and-away, as much as possible, during the school day.
Since we started our journey of having phone containment policies at SMUS, there is no question our device culture has improved. We must also recognize that phones are a big part of most children’s lives outside of school, and we cannot expect perfection when they are at school. Open conversations, a few simple strategies, and a balanced approach to screen time – heavy on the nutritional content – will help keep students engaged, focused, and happy.