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By: Laura Johnson Schofield // MDS Musings Blog

My child cannot believe that I made it through high school and college without a computer much less a cell phone. It was not until I held my first job, which required me to travel around the Southeast, that I got a very large “bag” phone, which plugged into the car lighter and could only be used to call 9-1-1 because of the expense!

We have come a long way, but our technology advances have created a unique set of challenges for parents. Our kids are clamoring for 24/7 connectivity with friends, video games, and digital information; but how much is too much, and how can we keep our kids safe and healthy in today’s smart phone world?

Here are some of my favorite bits of technology advice – some are expert opinions and some are lessons learned from my own parenting mistakes. Warning: your child will not like these! However, I have found that if you can weather the initial storm as you make changes, then they will eventually settle in to a new routine.

  • Know the risks to your child of being too plugged in too often. Distraction, irritability, anxiety, depression, social isolation, sleep deprivation, and many other problems are becoming more evident in teens with constant access to technology. Some even exhibit withdrawal symptoms similar to drug addicts when deprived of their cell phones. This is no wonder when you consider that executives of Facebook recently admitted that they designed the social media platform with a constant stream of likes and comments that trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which stimulates feelings of pleasure, in order to ensure that users become “hooked.” Even scarier is the fact that psychologists are considering whether to add cell phone addiction as an official mental disorder! There is a lot of information available online (of course!) about the risks and the warning signs of “cell phone addiction.”
  • Set and keep boundaries on cell phone, iPad, and computer access from day one. I love this quote from Josh Shipp, a self-described teen expert (imagine that!) who has appeared on Good Morning America: “What we need to do is empower our kids to make good decisions with this new gadget—to help them understand that a cell phone, like all privileges, is a responsibility.” Josh believes that giving a teen a smart phone is an invitation to “become a well-rounded person who can co-exist with technology, rather than be ruled by it.” He has developed a downloadable teen cell phone contract that I highly recommend (cue the eye roll from my teen). Talk as a family about times when devices should be put away so that responsibilities can be done and family time can be honored.
  • Teach and practice cell phone etiquette. I may have jumped on this bandwagon a little late, but we are working on putting down our phones when talking or listening to someone else, especially an adult. And, nothing is worse than having to hear another person’s life story as they talk on their phones in a public place, so it is also helpful to establish guidelines on when and where phone conversations should take place. Check out this resource if you need suggestions.
  • Make bedrooms a technology-free zone. Bedrooms can be havens for studying, relaxing, and sleeping. However, cell phone and computers are not conducive to any of these activities, so finding a place to “rest” technology in other areas of your home is important. Teens may say they do not check their phones at night or that they keep them on silent, but studies have shown that just knowing the phone is there, or hearing a buzz when a message comes in, interrupts healthy, restful sleep. To learn more, click here. Some parents also use apps like SafeTeen that allow parents to disable all smartphone and iPad applications at designated times. There are also parental controls and other tools to do the same for computers.
  • Monitor social media channels. Educate your child about how nothing that is put in writing in a text or posted on social media ever goes away. One bad decision can haunt your child for years, affecting their reputations, friendships, and college and career options. Coaches, admission counselors, employers, and others monitor often prospects’ social media accounts, and we should too, especially as they are learning how to use technology responsibly. Cyber-bulling is another growing problem, so we need to teach our kids that technology is not a tool to use to be mean. Check out this resource for guidelines on how and when to monitor social media.
  • Set the example! As parents, we do not want to fall into the “do as I say, not as I do” trap, and this is one area where you kids will definitely notice if the rules are different for them. I am making an effort to limit my use of technology and social media and to be present for my family and friends, and I think I am happier for it!

Of course, another solution to being constantly plugged in is to return to the bag phone as today’s teenager would not be caught dead with one of those! Short of that, we must help them learn to use technology in a responsible manner if we hope to raise healthy and happy children.