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Great phone switch: A cautionary tale about teens and smartphones

We just replaced the teen’s smartphone with a flip phone. It was a long overdue adjustment midway through the course for a home environment that had gone awry; Under the enchantment of 24/7 access to countless internet, games and texting, he has stepped out of the real world. And our parent relationship with him became increasingly volatile.

The Great Phone Switch: A Cautionary Tale About Teens and Smartphones
The Great Phone Switch: A Cautionary Tale About Teens and Smartphones

Phone switches aren’t the end of the world as we all fear. In fact, after a month of rehab, he has returned to his old hobbies, started real conversations with people, “present” and – most importantly – our relationship with him is improving.

Do you know what they say about hindsight of 20-20? I’m sure we wish we had some of that clear vision a year ago.

We can’t go back in time, but perhaps the things we learn the hard way can be helpful for other parents in navigating these choices.
Here are five useful tips to help you when you make a choice about your child’s first phone experience.

1. Assess your family standards

We could have predicted how life with a smartphone would turn out. After all, smartphones have contradicted our family’s standards for device usage time. But we started going down a slippery slope when my partner’s family donated their old phones to us. It was an inexpensive way to add a phone to our package, and our middle school boy inherited one of them.

But, by the time he’s had his smartphone for a year, it’s like we’re living with a zombie addicted to screens that’s almost impossible to heal,

Hardly talking. Not only do we scramble for his attention at every turn, but most of our interactions contain conflict.

We should have listened to our internal alarm bells. Instead, we succumbed to inertia (we had the phone) and pressure from friends (all the kids had them).

Ask yourself what your expectations around the screen are. What types of phones and packages reflect those values? And how can adding a smartphone change all that? **
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2. Set boundaries

We didn’t consider how addictive constant access to the screen in our son’s pocket would be. And we certainly didn’t think about what boundaries we needed to have until we reacted to things we didn’t like.

Being proactive can help – not only can we soon set expectations on our child, but we also don’t feel like we’re constantly taking precautions, reacting to the way we see them behaving.
Ask yourself: What boundaries or guidelines do you use for other screens in your family? For example, if your family doesn’t have unlimited access to a TV or PlayStation, you probably don’t want your child to have unrestricted access to a small screen in their pocket either.

Mimicking the rules you already have for computers, TVs and games is consistent and logical. In our home, applications may not be installed without permission. Our kids know that if they want to buy a game or install an app, they need to give us 24 hours to evaluate before expecting an answer.

3. Be clear about the purpose of the phone

Why would you give that last generation iPhone to your child? It’s a question worth thinking about and must be clear to yourself and your child. And make sure that your partner is on the same page as any “mission statements” you make.
For example, for you – an adult – your smartphone can be a device for general purposes. You use it for phone calls, texting, banking transactions, killing time on Facebook, and even infrequent gaming.

But you can’t give your child a phone that does everything without boundaries. It can be an emergency communication tool or internet access to study homework.
The boundaries of your phone must reflect the purpose of the phone. For our family, the purpose of releasing the phone is to get in touch when our son is away from home.

Surfing the web and unlimited access to social media are not part of the deal and unfortunately we don’t realize that we need to be clear about that.

4. There are consequences for pushing boundaries

Teenagers and teenagers will cross the line. So in addition to any agreed principles that you have, you’ll also want to establish the consequences that will occur when those basic rules aren’t followed. Some things won’t be negotiable, but which ones won’t? How can you pull your child in to help make decisions about the parameters?
When we determined what the boundaries would be, we made a contract-like agreement that defined those expectations so there was no confusion. In our homes, the consequences around our phones are tied to the phone itself. When the rules about the phone are broken, access to the phone will be restricted.

And you don’t have to do this entirely alone. There are apps you can install on your child’s smartphone to help you keep track of and even control how much time they spend online, playing games, and doing other activities. See Dealing with the Risk of Internet Addiction (That’s The Real Thing).

The consequences must be clear and there is a definite end in sight. Everyone should know when the consequences will end and/or what the child needs to do to regain the privilege of using the phone.

5. Reduce the size when it doesn’t work

After more than a year of experiencing countless boundaries and shattering consequences, our relationship with kiddo has become painful. There’s a lot of bad feelings around.
For us, switching to a simpler flip phone has become the obvious choice.

Indeed, a flip phone is the choice that we should choose in the first place, since it fits the purpose that we give him (see #3) and it conforms to our family’s standard of screen (see #1).

Of course, it took me months to pluck up the courage to keep buying a new phone and make the switch. No parent wants to be the one to pull the strings out of their child’s hand and replace it with something less interesting. But sometimes the best is the hardest thing.
Consequence

When the time comes, we don’t trust the endless cycle of broken boundaries and consequences. Instead, we give our child a new phone, offer a simple explanation of cost, purpose, and norms, and reassure him that while he’ll have less freedom about what he can do with the phone, he’ll actually have fewer restrictions from us.

In fact, since he can only text and call, we have very few parameters around the flip phone. Unlike with smartphones, he can now keep the phone with him without restrictions. Notably, he spends more time on the phone and less time texting and using Instagram. And I think it’s a win.
However, the biggest win of all was that he was finally “there” again. He makes eye contact. He laughed. He’s reading, making jokes and telling stories. Sometimes, as children grow up, it’s hard to know how normal dilation and drag occurs as a young man. In this case, all of that was exaggerated by the unhealthy dependence on a device.

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