Setting Limits on Kids’ Smartphone Use

By Christina Elston

kids using smartphonesMuch fuss has been made over the debut in early September of the latest generation of iPhones. Despite the $999 price tag for the top-of-the-line iPhone X, the news no doubt has tweens and teens asking for an upgrade.

But experts are finding evidence that excess smartphone use could be connected to depression and anxiety among teens and tweens – possibly because they are trading in-person relationships and interaction for the fickle world of social media.

“It sort of becomes this cycle where the less that they’re interacting, the more they feel cut off socially, the worse they feel about themselves, the more isolated and depressed they get, and so on,” says clinical psychologist Stephanie Marcy, Ph.D., of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

When most of kids’ social interactions take place via texts or posts, their skills at reading facial expressions, tone of voice and other social cues can fail to develop properly. And 24-hour access to entertainment, information and social interaction via their phone or tablet can diminish kids’ patience and resourcefulness. “The new version of delayed gratification is waiting for something to download or trying to get to a Wi-Fi spot,” Marcy says.

Signs of Addictive Behavior

Some kids even become obsessed with their devices or show symptoms of addiction. “I’m seeing these adolescent tantrums, where they run out of battery or the Wi-Fi shuts down and it’s like World War III has occurred,” says Marcy. “They’re hysterical.”

And, of course, unsupervised time in the digital world leaves kids exposed to inappropriate sexual material and predatory people.

So, how can you keep your kids’ phone use at reasonable levels? “The first limit is the easiest one,” says Marcy, who recommends that your child’s first phone be a simple model without Wi-Fi access, and that you set expectations in writing about how, when and how much that phone can be used. As kids demonstrate responsibility, they can earn their way up to a smartphone.

As you allow your kids to add each new app to their phone, have a discussion about how to use it appropriately. Be sure that you understand how to use these apps, and how to monitor your child’s use of them. And keep an eye on your child’s overall behavior.

“Look at how your child is functioning globally,” says Marcy. “How are their grades? How is their social life? Are they coming home when they’re supposed to? Are they where they’re supposed to be when you pick them up? Are they doing their homework?” If not, she says you should feel equipped and empowered to take the phone away – or to take steps to bring their usage back to a healthy level.

Guidelines for Setting Boundaries

You might allow just an hour or so of phone access each evening after homework is done, or take it away completely until your child re-earns privileges.

At the same time, entice your child back into the real world by doing things with them. Organize a no-phones day at the park with a friend, a scavenger hunt or family outing. “Be resourceful. Be creative,” says Marcy, adding your child might be sullen at first but will come around. “Once you kind of break them of the addiction, they will start to be able to see the pleasure in no-tech activities and play again.”

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