By Rachel Tuchman

Dear Rachel,

I recently got a smartphone for my pre-teen. I am nervous about the level of access to give him. Should I be checking his texts, e-mails, search history? Should I put a tracking app on his phone so that I know that he is where he says he is? I believe a phone is important for his safety and his social life but I also know that with all of this access at his fingertips I am welcoming more headaches as a parent because I’ll constantly be worrying about what he’s seeing and doing on his phone. How do I handle this? I want to be responsible and I also don’t want to ruin our relationship!

Tech-Torn Parent

Dear Tech-Torn,

Your last sentence is the best one to start with. Being a responsible parent is how we ensure healthy and positive relationships with our children. In my previous article I discussed the importance of boundaries and how they are a protective factor for relationships. Kids need to know that their parents are providing the structure of values, rules, and limits in order for them to feel safe and loved.

When it comes to tech (and everything else in our kids’ lives) it’s important to establish safety measures and boundaries early on. It is much easier to ease up and give more freedoms than it is to take away freedoms. You are more likely to get pushback if you’ve never set any limits on device usage before. Education and knowledge are the best prevention for you and your kids. Make sure you, the parent, know what’s out there so that you can have open and honest discussions with your children. With knowledge comes less risky curiosity and better decision-making abilities.

The best approach to introducing our kids to technology is in slow, gradual steps. When you start introducing tech in your home, clear limits and expectations should be outlined, and discussions should be collaborative and frequent. Establishing digital trust with your kids should start long before they have their own personal devices. From the start, create the habits of: checking in before taking a device; sharing what they will be doing on the device (“I’m gonna watch Paw Patrol, OK?”); using devices in public areas with lights on; and always asking for permission before downloading apps. This sets the stage for open communication as well as teaching the habit of stopping and thinking before engaging with a device.

If we want our kids to be responsible and safe with technology, we need to have open and ongoing discussions about the risk and responsibility that comes with each level of access. If you are giving your child access to tech devices then you need to also make sure you are also talking to them about important topics like internet safety, digital citizenship, sexuality, abuse, bullying, illicit material (and what to do if they see it), healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent. If we are not proactive with these discussions, our kids will likely find the information themselves—either from their friends or on their own. We need to make sure we are making ourselves more accessible to our kids than a Google search.

It has been recommended to delay smartphones for as long as possible. There are great initiatives that parents have created like WAIT UNTIL 8TH (waituntil8th.com), which encourages and supports parents to band together and agree to delay giving their kids access to smartphones until eighth grade. Consider gathering some of the parents in your child’s grade together (it doesn’t have to be everyone; this is not realistic or necessary. Contact the parents of your child’s friend group) and agree together to delay phones for your young kids.

Once your children have a phone, should you be checking it to see what they are doing? According to research, invasive parental control over kids’ phones is damaging to the child’s trust and harms the relationship with parents, and yet a majority of parents are spying on their kids’ digital lives. To start, this is a major boundary violation. Our kids are not our property and we are not entitled to every part of their lives. Kids deserve privacy just like adults do. It’s important to make the distinction that privacy is not the same as secrecy or disconnection (that’s a whole other column topic).

When kids feel like their privacy is being infringed on, they are more likely to put up walls and fortify their boundaries, thus creating more distance and secrecy. As parents we need to believe that our kids are not necessarily looking to do wrong; they simply want the autonomy to share on their terms, which is not unreasonable. When I conducted my own unofficial research and asked my teenage daughter how she would feel if I went through her texts and e-mails, her answer confirmed what the research tells us. She said, “I’d feel like you don’t think I’m capable or trustworthy and I’d really resent you. I’d probably also want to hide things from you.”

Besides harming the parent–child relationship, parental snooping can also hurt the child’s ability to develop a sense of agency. This makes sense because when we teach our children that the world is bad and we don’t have faith that they can be safe, responsible, and make good decisions about their own well-being, they will internalize this belief and carry that fear and anxiety into the world. Knowing how to navigate risk is an important skill for developing independence and confidence that can help safeguard kids as they encounter more complicated challenges later in life. Kids learn to be responsible by being given the opportunity to act responsibly. This means that we let them make choices, rather than dictate to them. We also let them make mistakes, rather than try to shield them from any hardship. In general, the more of a helicopter role we play in our kids’ lives, the more we are likely to see poor coping skills as well as feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. Also, if we are being really honest, snooping is less about the kids’ safety and more about managing parents’ stress and anxiety. This approach is actually counterproductive as it pushes kids and parents apart at a time when open and honest communication is most critical.

I know what you are thinking—OK, but do I look through the phone or not? To summarize what I’ve told you so far: Focusing on controlling your child’s behavior and usage of devices rather than nurturing a healthy, respectful relationship is setting the stage for a child’s increased secrecy and distance. The boundaries you put in place early on are safeguards in the long run. Delay a smartphone for as long as possible. Have a conversation before you give them a phone. Collaborate on an agreement together about the purpose of having a phone and what responsible phone use looks like (on my website, you can find a sample contract that you can modify to suit your needs). Discuss sensitive topics so that you are the primary source of information and so that their curiosity doesn’t land them where they shouldn’t be. And finally, don’t go through their phone.

Protect Young Eyes (PYE), an organization dedicated to educating families, schools, and communities to create a safer digital environment, offers five tips for creating digital trust with kids (be sure to check out all their other fantastic resources, too):

Model the right digital behaviors. Be an example to them of how to use technology. This includes no-tech times, not texting and driving, paying attention to who you follow and engage with online, and being responsible with your online behavior.

Use technology together when possible. Technology should be a we activity, not a me activity. Take interest in what they are interested in, both digital and non-digital.

Be curious about how they use technology. Do not condemn or judge. How they use technology is a great way to learn about them.

Talk about everything, and early on. Open, honest, and non-judgmental dialogue is a must with our children. It begins when they are little. Tell your kids that no matter what happens in school, with friends, online, you will be there for them.

Coach them. Everything in parenting is me and you, and not me vs. you. Create tech rules together. It is not about parental control; it’s about safety and collaboration. Discuss privacy settings, how to interact online, what to do if they see content that makes them feel uncomfortable, etc.

Connection is the prerequisite for all things complicated in raising kids. When digital trust is high with kids and parents, digital friction is low. When we focus on relationship, mutual respect, and unconditional love and acceptance, then we make these potentially difficult stages a little bit easier and a lot more constructive for everyone involved. 

Rachel Tuchman, LMHC, is a licensed therapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her social media platform, public speaking, and online courses. You can learn more about Rachel’s work at RachelTuchman.com and follow her on Instagram @rachel_tuchman_lmhc.

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