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Have Smartphones Made Parents Dumb?

Sometimes it feels like technology is raising -- or rather -- regressing our kids. We can complain all we want about the tsunami of media flooding our children's lives, but are we seriously willing to give in to it?
01/09/2015 05:58pm ET | Updated March 11, 2015
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My wake up call was when my 8th grade daughter posted a tweet to about 300 followers, "I hate my mom." And then, "At least I don't have to see her all weekend."

Ouch.

It was in response to her failed attempt to get out of a youth retreat weekend she had agreed to six months before. But now she had a smartphone, a boyfriend and a social life. She couldn't be bothered. In spite of the small stab in my heart, I had two competing thoughts: "Ok, she's a typical teenage girl." And, "Jeez, nothing is private anymore."

It seems that everyone I know pretty much gets that we've been hijacked by technology. But the curious thing is why have parents acquiesced? Parents complain to me about their kids and their phones, gaming consoles and social apps. At a recent neighborhood gathering, all the teens were slumped on a couch next to one another; texting or scanning their social media feeds. Like toddlers in a sandbox, they were engaged in parallel play. None of them were talking. None went outside.

Indeed, sometimes it feels like technology is raising -- or rather -- regressing our kids.

We can complain all we want about the tsunami of media flooding our children's lives, but are we seriously willing to give in to it?

Media studies and child health professionals talk about a "media diet" or finding a healthy balance of technology use. A media diet allows time for learning, creativity, and entertainment on gadgets; while also finding time for more traditional pastimes, like playing outside, board games, family field trips and -- dare I say it -- rest.

The biggest challenge is the moment kids get a smartphone, which seems to be as early as age 10. But once the coveted gift has been given, parents must take responsibility for handing over 24-7 access to the Internet and entertainment. A smartphone is, after all, a powerful brain stimulator.

As some relief, organizations like Common Sense Media have popped up to guide families on the latest tech trends while trying to stay ahead of savvy kids. There are books on how and why technology might positively and negatively affect teen brain development or social relationships.

Typical parenting suggestions include:

  • Creating a home technology policy
  • Having regular chats about responsible use and digital footprints
  • Not allowing computers or gadgets in bedrooms
  • Banning smartphone and social media use while doing homework
  • Shutting down technology an hour before bed
  • Encouraging offline experiences

Parents are also advised to get their own digital diets under control and be conscientious role models. Lots of sound advice.

Sadly, the wake up call tends to be alarming, like a child being cyberbullied, or a vulnerable kid being swept up in online communities that encourage troublesome behaviors. In the span of a few months I received calls from three desperate mothers, friends of mine who are living in different parts of the world. Each discovered their beautiful girls were cutting. "This can't be," I thought. "The girls are only 11 and 12 years old!" But like a contagion, the girls caught the behaviors from new "friends" they were forming on social networks. It was a secret society. It made them feel better.

Being on top of things gets tricky when schools use online platforms to allow students and parents to access grades and class information. To be sure, these are necessary tools. Yet, it places a modern burden on moms and dads who don't have time or even the know-how to monitor technology. This is especially so for social apps which kids cling to for dear life. Just as our kids are learning how to cope in a more complex and public world, the bar for fitting in keeps getting higher and higher: more likes = more followers = more friends.

We didn't grow up with technology and we have no personal history to draw on. We're just fumbling to make up new rules. Parents tend to over-control out of sheer fear, have blind faith that their kids can handle their devices, or they totally give in to childhood demands. "Everyone has one, mom!"

Finding a balance? It's really, really hard.

Even so, some parents are now resorting to desperate measures. The Digital Family Project found that 79 percent of parents use technology as a reward for their child's good behavior and 85 percent of parents limit technology as punishment. Several families I work with believe that the only way they can get their child to behave is to take away all devices for an undisclosed period of time. The house rules keep changing, and instead of better discipline and respect, they have fostered hell in the home. One mother-daughter pair ended up in frequent wrestling matches on the kitchen floor, each grabbing a hold of the girl's cell phone, with the winner taking all.

What happened to good, old-fashioned consequences like being grounded on weekends, having to do extra chores or having to say you're sorry and mean it? Yes, back in the day a kid could be banished from using the house phone. Not so easy, now.

What if parents could view smartphones as a right of passage -- a privilege in fact -- just like driving a car?

Driving a car requires supervision, learning the rules of the road, lots of practice, and establishing responsibility at home. Such conditions tend to be thoughtful, clear and consistent. They are established ahead of time. A test is involved. Some families require their young drivers pay for gas and contribute to car insurance; some teens have no choice but to work to pay for a car if they want one.

My once sassy daughter is now driving our old dented-up mini-van. She drives her younger sister to school. She gets what a huge responsibility is in her hands. It's changed her. She is more responsible. And her shiny new smartphone that she paid for? Well, it better be in her backpack... or else.