Kids and Mobile Devices: 5 Tips for Parents

Three kids sitting in the backseat of a car with their cellphones

Article by Meghan Tuohy Walls, PsyD, division of Pediatric Behavioral Health, Department of Pediatrics. 

While media by itself is not the leading cause of any health problem in the U.S., it can contribute to numerous health risks. Excessive media use has been associated with obesity, lack of sleep, school problems and behavior issues. At the same time, kids can have positive experiences through digital access. As discussed in earlier posts, they are forming valuable social relationships and using their devices and social media for education.

The best way for parents to get into the driver’s seat when it comes to their children’s digital use is to have an open and honest conversation with them. And the sooner the conversation is had, the better.

Start the Conversation

To begin your conversation, stress to kids that their digital experience is all about making good choices. Devise a plan with a healthy approach to media that supports safe and positive use. Some topic areas you may want to cover are:

  • Your children’s digital footprint: each place they visit online will likely be remembered forever.
  • Be a good digital citizen: what are the consequences of online bullying?
  • What can your child do if they are a victim of cyberbullying?
  • What type of messages and photos are appropriate for kids to be sharing?
  • What should you do if you see things that are inappropriate? Who can you talk to?
  • How much device time is necessary every day?

1. Create a Family Technology or Media Contract

To continue the conversation, work together as a family to create a technology or media contract. These contracts balance what your kids do, how much time they spend doing it, and how to make appropriate content choices. Mixing media and digital time with other activities like sports or academics will help families find a happy medium. It’s also smart for parents to lay down ground rules for the whole family, including themselves.

Consider adding the following when creating a technology contract with your children:

  • Times that the whole family agrees to not check/“park” devices (family/dinner/vacation time)
  • A family promise to never talk on the phone or text while driving
  • Who is allowed to be in kids’ contact lists?
  • Who can kids connect with on social media?
  • What apps are children allowed to download?
  • How will phones be monitored by parents? What apps will parents use? Will parents follow their children on all social media accounts?
  • How will children keep their phone safe and secure both physically and digitally?
  • What is the time kids spend on their devices vs. time they spend on school/sports/other activities?
  • What should children do if a problem arises?
  • What are the consequences if the contract is broken?

2. Follow Through with Consequences

It is essential for parents to let their children know that when they misuse their devices, there will be consequences. Plan for consequences of both small and large violations. For the more minor violations, parents may want to increase phone monitoring time. For bigger mistakes, taking the phone away for certain amounts of time may be more appropriate. Remember that digital grounding is not as easy as it sounds, so whatever you decide as a family, make sure it is enforced. It is also important to have concrete goals for getting a phone back–what behaviors do you expect each day? How long will it be until they can have the phone back?

3. Secure Your Child’s Phone

Nothing beats a frank, face-to-face and continuing talk with kids about what is good for them online and what isn’t. But in addition to that conversation, some parents may want to take steps to secure their children’s devices, especially when they’re just beginning to use them. Depending on the age of your child, here are some ways parents can secure devices:

  • Create user IDs and passcodes with your child.
  • Set some app restrictions such as privacy settings, the ability to make in-app purchases, payment information, active listening by Siri, and location services.
  • Turn off notifications by all apps.
  • Allow family sharing on their mobile device.
  • Frequently clear browser history.
  • Secure a private VPN to protect their privacy.
    • A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, lets you create a secure connection to another network over the internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, shield your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi, and more.
  • Use apps that help you put certain settings on your child’s devices. You should always tell your child you have these settings or apps and have an open conversation about it. You can do this by using your mobile service settings as well.
    • This Parents magazine article speaks to appropriate controls.
    • Apps such as NetNanny, Qustodio, Family Time can also help.

If you’ve had the conversation with your kids and they’ve broken trust repeatedly, even after enforcing consequences, parents may find it necessary to place controls on devices.

4. Know the Hidden Apps

Hopefully, after devising a contract and having conversations, your kids won’t feel the need to hide apps on their phones. But it’s good for parents to know what’s out there. Two of the most common types of hidden apps are password-protected and disguising apps.

Password-Protected Apps
Examples: Vault, KeepSafe, Best Secret Folder

Some password-protected apps serve a helpful purpose like password locks on sensitive information. However, some are a way to hide content from parents. These apps require additional passwords for access and could store videos, photos, and messages kids don’t want parents to see.

Disguised Apps
Examples: Hide It Pro, Secret Calculator

Disguised apps aren’t what they appear to be. They can look just like an app for a calculator or for things like volume or brightness control, even though those controls are already installed in a device’s settings. It’s likely these are disguised apps that could be storing photos, videos and messages.

5. Be the Model

Children learn about using technology and social media from their parents more than anywhere else. If you want your kids to be responsible with their digital media, it helps to take a look at your own practices. Make sure you’re modeling good behaviors and if you’re not, hold yourself accountable.

Remember that new advances in technology happen every day, so continue the conversation with your child regularly about being a good digital citizen.

If you're looking for something to keep your kids active, and away from their cellphones, the YMCA of Greater Brandywine offers programs for kids to keep them active. Besides a membership which gives you access to our wellness centers, pools, basketball courts, and more, we offer programs every 7 weeks that feature swimming lessons, cooking classes, sports, art classes, dance programs, and so much more. Learn something new at the Y. 

Want to read more? Check out these great articles from our partner Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.

Category: Family Fun