The nearly eleven-year age span between my first and last sons means I have raised children through two vastly different childhoods, at least when it comes to the impact of technology. When my first three were young, I remember seeing the early forms of handheld game systems — the big, bulky ones. Perhaps because they were unfamiliar to me, I chose to avoid them. My hands were full then, and looking back now I imagine life would have been much easier if I had taken advantage of the free babysitting.
Yet because they didn’t have access to devices, I believe we all grew in character. I had to do the hard work of hands-on parenting, and they developed a great imagination and a love of books, art, and (probably most of all) dirt, mud, bugs, and anything they could get into outdoors. My sons explored nature magazines and studied world maps long before we started homeschooling.
By the time technology became an integral part of our culture, these first sons had a foundation in exploring the world through other means, and though they all use technology today, they began their relationship with it as an addendum to their already established love of learning.
Fast-forward several years to when my fourth son was born in 2010. Technology had become a big part of our daily life. Our world was changing, and smartphones seemed to be at the center of it all. I embraced it, taking cell phone pictures of my baby in the hospital and posting them instantly to social media. I’m guessing many of Levi’s first impressions of his mom and dad involved us with a device in front of our faces. (That stings a little to admit.)
Smartphones, tablets, and all kinds of technology were a part of his world from the beginning. There was plenty of good in this. When he developed an early love for tractors and cars, we found educational websites that featured videos of all these things accompanied by catchy songs. We searched the internet to find preschool science and art projects for every season. I was happy to offer him the world at his fingertips.
But it makes me a little sad to consider the differences between my older sons’ early years and Levi’s. Yes, learning became easy — maybe too easy. There was no more searching through books or waiting until our next trip to the library to find information. Instead, as questions came up, we went directly to an iPhone for the answer. Levi and Siri became friends, and the rest is history.
CONSIDER THE TRADE-OFFS
I hate to admit it, but I don’t think Levi has grown up using his imagination the way his brothers did. At some point he began to snatch up my phone to take photos of dogs or cars or to capture a funny-face selfie. And he discovered game apps. New battles emerged over when and for how long he could use my phone or laptop.
One day I realized that Levi thought he “needed” my phone every time we got in the car. He often killed quiet moments at home by scrolling through my phone as well. While I reflected on the difference in my car-ride conversations with my first three sons and the silence experienced with Levi, it hit me hard that this was not at all how I wanted to raise my son. Sure, at times it was helpful, and, yes, it was culturally acceptable. But who knew what the long-term consequences would be for a second grader with a magnetic attachment to devices? And how many potential connections with my son was I missing out on?
At this point I asked myself some hard questions about what I wanted my son’s childhood to look like. I reflected on the best parts of my own childhood and the childhoods of my older sons. Though Levi would not have the exact same experience, I considered what I could do to offer him some of the most valuable parts. I asked myself how willing I was to make a plan and stick with it. Considering my own use of screens and a household of others using them for various purposes, I knew I would have my work cut out for me. Was I willing to make this a priority?
In the book Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch pointed out that allowing young children to use devices has cheated both kids and parents of opportunities for growth. He shared the example of using devices in car rides or at the grocery store. We’ve all seen kids sitting in a shopping cart so glued to some form of entertainment on a device that it seems unlikely they ever knew they went in the grocery store at all. Crouch suggested that if we hand our kids a device every time life is hard (how about the bewitching hour before dinner?), then we also miss opportunities to develop qualities like patience and perseverance, which are an important part of growth for parents and kids.
After pondering these things and asking myself the hard questions, months ago I made the decision to stop giving my seven-year-old my phone except in very specific situations. Though at first he thought he might die, he somehow managed to survive. In time he even got used to it. Our car rides now include actual conversations, rhyming games, audiobooks, and sometimes just peaceful music. I’ve even caught him getting lost in his imagination a time or two, and that is my absolute favorite.
Setting boundaries with technology in the early years is one thing, but the stakes get higher as our kids grow older. When it comes to making decisions about when to get your son his own smartphone or other device, the best advice I can offer is to be purposeful about each digital decision you make. To think through your why before you buy. Peers matter, but they should not direct your decisions. A smartphone may be convenient, but that alone is not reason enough to take the plunge.
We got our first son a smartphone at age thirteen and waited longer for each of the younger brothers. We became more aware of the challenges that come with a teenager using a smartphone, as well as the potential damage to or loss of the phone. Luke will be getting a flip phone for his fourteenth birthday, even though he is begging for a smartphone. We’ve concluded that a flip phone will serve the necessary purpose of communication, and for now that is enough. (It’s also less costly to replace if it gets lost.)
We certainly aren’t trying to punish Luke; we’ve explained to him that we’re learning more all the time, and it is our responsibility to parent with wisdom in light of what we know. Our love for him and our desire to see him develop good habits and noble character qualities are what inspire us to wait another year (or two) to get a smartphone. Certainly, my momma heart would love to make him happy by giving him what he wants. Our reasons for waiting simply carry more weight than our desire to temporarily please our son. Oh, the joys of (upstream) parenting!
SETTING GROUND RULES
Though technology is ever changing, these general rules will remain relevant as you make purposeful choices amid the pressures of this digital world:
— Follow limits set on screen time. Determine what is reasonable for your son and set clear rules. (See some ideas for this below.) I would suggest that game time and tech-related entertainment on a school day be seriously limited; there are plenty of other things to do, even after schoolwork is done.
— No devices in bedrooms at night. In our home kids have a 9 p.m. turn-in time for all devices. My oldest son uses his phone for an alarm but still follows the rule of not using it at bedtime.
— No computers in bedrooms or behind closed doors.
— Only use apps approved by parents. When possible, parents should keep a password for all app purchases so they have to approve every new app. Any child caught with an unapproved app loses his phone for an extended time. (The consequence should be painful enough that they wouldn’t consider getting sneaky.)
— No bypassing filters. Parents should install filters on all computers and other devices. (More on filters below.)
You may want to post these rules or your own set of rules in a central place or over the computer. I would also suggest you craft a technology contract for your kids to sign before they gain the privilege of a new device or app. (You’ll find a link to a technology contract template at the end of this chapter.)
As his mother, you are well qualified to make the hard choices on behalf of your son. The parents I’ve heard from who seem to have the most peace about their sons’ time on devices have set straightforward guidelines for how their boys can earn screen time. Here are a few ideas families might use:
— Children read thirty minutes (beyond normal school reading) to earn thirty minutes of screen time.
— Children finish all homework and chores before they get on a device (and even then the parents set a timer for a specific time period).
— Children run a mile to earn twenty minutes on a device.
I love these creative approaches, and I highly recommend that all parents determine what is best for their kids and how they might enforce the guidelines they set up.
I suggest you take a good look at your son in light of his educational goals, social skills, health, and past use of technology. Set the rules you think are best, and then stand your ground. It might be helpful to team up with other parents in your son’s social circle whom you respect and work together to establish shared guidelines. However, if you do not agree with how other parents are doing things, then by all means do not feel the need to match their rules.
KEEPING TECHNOLOGY IN ITS PROPER PLACE
Many experts recommend families set aside certain days and times of the day when all devices are banned. This is good for parents as well as kids.
Our family does not allow devices at the dinner table, and I try to keep everyone off devices in the car. (“Car time is talk time” is one of my mom mantras.) I love the idea of Sundays being a technology-free day, though I confess our family hasn’t established that rule yet!
Keep in mind that our own use of technology sets an example for our kids, so taking time to evaluate where you need to set some boundaries is a good idea. When I speak to groups of moms on the topic of kids and technology, often a good number of women say their own use of technology may be a bigger problem than their kids’. It is important we keep ourselves in check. Many of us work from our computers and phones, and I confess the lines get blurred when my “work” turns to mindless scrolling. (Tell me I’m not the only one.)
It is important to note that you can set controls on devices and download apps that turn off phones or the Wi-Fi at a certain time. (And you can use these for both your kids’ devices and your own!) You can also use apps to track what sites your kids are visiting and how much time they are on their devices. A list of filters and other related resources is included at the end of this chapter, and by the time you read this book, more options will likely be available. I encourage you to use every resource you need in order to feel confident your son is safe and responsible with technology.
*Excerpted from Boy Mom: What Your Son Needs Most from You. Copyright © 2019 by Monica Swanson. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.