Q&A: Rules for smartphones and handling tantrums
Welcome to our monthly Questions from Sapiens, where I answer your questions about psychology, technology, and parenting. Today, we’ve got two parenting questions: one for big kids (about rules/limits for a child’s first smartphone) and one for little kids (about handling tantrums).
The first question is available to everyone, and the second to paying subscribers only. Remember to submit your questions for future Q&As here!
I’m about to get my 13-year-old her first smartphone, and I’m super overwhelmed. What rules should I put in place? I’m worried about all the usual, scary stuff—addiction to the device, accessing websites and videos she shouldn’t be, etc. We are already planning to hold off on allowing her to get on any social media, but what other limits should we have?
Let me just say: I hear you. That first smartphone is a big milestone for both kids and parents. Not to mention, we’re constantly hearing from professionals (like, say, weird professor ladies who write Substacks) about the importance of “setting limits” around phone use, but don’t always have guidance on what those limits should actually be. I hear from a lot of parents about just how overwhelming this all can feel.
At the risk of prompting you to throw your phone across the room in a fiery rage that only ambiguous parenting advice can produce (is that just me?), let me also say: every family is different. I always hesitate to give one-size-fits-all guidance on issues like this because a rule that works for one family might be totally nonsensical for another.
That said, now is a great time to be thinking about limits. It’s much harder—though, of course, not impossible—to put new rules in place after the fact. Along these lines, your plan to hold off on social media for now makes sense to me. Starting out with stricter limits and loosening over time tends to go more smoothly for everyone. At the same time, we want to be careful not to set too many rules, lest we (or our kids) forget them, or have difficulty separating out what’s really important from what’s just nice to have. (Please, stick with me here. No phone throwing yet.)
So, if I had to narrow it down to a few key rules parents might consider before handing over the first smartphone, they would be:
No phone in the bedroom, especially at night. Sleep is essential. Most teens don’t get enough of it. Phones get in the way.
At least one other phone-free location or time of day. Family meals, car rides, while they’re sitting on the couch, whatever. (You’ll need to stick to this one, too).
Get permission before downloading new apps or making purchases. You can also set this up via parental controls. This helps you stay on top of the apps they’re using.
Use good judgment. This one’s a little squishy, and can be tailored to your family’s values, but in addition to “here’s what not to do” rules (like those listed above), you’ll also probably want a “here’s what to do” rule. This might cover things like: be kind to others online, focus on consuming positive content, and think before sending/posting things publicly.
Respond to you when you text or call them. This one’s about digital etiquette…and also about preventing you from losing your mind.
You may also want to consider some kind of “monitoring plan,” whether it’s just asking questions regularly, or occasionally checking in on their messages. And you’ll want to remind them that honesty is always the best policy—if they have questions, or if something has gone awry in their digital life, they can always come talk to you.
Good luck! Please know the techno sapiens community is in your (digital) corner.
I have a 3-year-old (almost 4), and I’m trying to figure out the best way to handle tantrums. I don’t want to “reinforce” the kicking, screaming, etc. by giving him what he wants, and I’ve read about how it can work sometimes to just totally ignore “bad” behavior. But I also worry about leaving him alone with his feelings or somehow conveying that it’s not okay for him to feel upset. A lot of times I end up sitting with him, hugging him, and telling him I’m there for him, but I wonder if that’s just making it worse? I’m confused!
Discipline is confusing. So many opinions. So much conflicting advice. So many Instagram momfluencers warning of long-term emotional damage. So many screaming children demanding chicken fingers with great urgency.
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