When a smartphone takes over your child's life

Phone: Getty Images
Phone: Getty Images 

I came home from a business trip to find my then-nine-year-old daughter fiddling with a sparkly new iPod Touch. When I asked my husband where she got it, he said, "She begged me to take her to the store and paid for it with her own money, so I figured it was fine."

But soon she was doing almost everything we could do on our iPhones - incessantly texting, FaceTiming and accessing the Internet - before we could set limits. We had no idea it could do almost everything an iPhone does as long as it was connected to WiFi.

So much for carefully considering the right age and rules for getting a mobile phone. We had unwittingly opened Pandora's box.

Not all parents are as clueless as we were, but plenty wish they could put the phone back in the box. Here are some ideas for rebooting kids' relationships with their phones, if you find yourself in that position.

Assess your situation

"I am on the front line of the battlefield," says Becky Worley, who covers technology for ABC News in the US and is writing a book about kids and screens. "Since I've been witnessing this, I've held off on giving my kids access." But she doesn't blame parents who have given their kids a phone. "We didn't know then what we know now, so go easy on yourself. The research community didn't know either . . . the effect of screens on children's developing brains."

It's never too late to reset things, though, and regain control. Worley has suggestions for disrupting the connection between your child and their phone, depending how obsessed they are.

Psychologists suggest using addiction criteria to gauge this. Ask yourself:

Does your child get angry, anxious - or even violent - if you take away their phone?


Does he or she withdraw from activities and social events to use the cellphone?

Do your child's relationships, schoolwork or hygiene suffer because of cellphone use?

Based on the severity of the issue, you can try one of two approaches.

Executive function method: For easier cases, Worley suggests calmly showing your tween or teen a timeline of their day, which should make it evident how limited the hours between school and bedtime are. Ask your son or daughter to make a viable plan for using those hours for homework, chores, eating dinner and enjoying some downtime. The idea is that maturing young people will self-regulate if they see just how little time is available to zone out on their phones, and that will help them set realistic limits.

Cold-turkey detox: For tougher cases, Worley's plan is based on a Stanford University study, which suggests stopping any addictive behaviour completely for a month, perhaps with the help of a counsellor or therapist. The idea is to interrupt the rhythm of the habit and rest the brain. After that, you and your child can work together to add the phone back while putting barriers in place that will cut down on future cellphone abuse.

Using parental controls

Speaking of barriers, avoid monitoring systems that are hard for you to maintain, such as setting external timers to limit tech use, or creating chore charts to award it. Those systems are tedious, exhausting and make you the bad guy. Instead, take advantage of automated parental controls, either as part of the phone's operating system or outside apps. This takes the emotional heat out of limiting cellphone use and makes it pleasantly cold and clinical. It's a good idea to set your strictest controls at the beginning, then ease up gradually, because parenting experts say kids do best when they can see themselves gaining more freedom over time. Focus on three areas to monitor their use.

Limit their time: You can designate certain times of day - during school, at night, etc. - when your child cannot use their phone. And you can control the total amount of time they spend using certain types of apps, such as games. Apple's Screen Time function and Google's Family Link app for Android are free and work quite well for this.

Limit their access: You may also wish to block your child's access to adult content on the Internet. Or you may want to prevent them from using certain types of apps, such as social media, until they are older. Again, the Apple and Android ecosystems both provide ample free tools to help you accomplish this.

Track their location: The phone's built-in tools also allow you to track your child's location, but they are not as robust as outside apps. The best apps tell you where your child is and also store some history of where they have been. Some even allow you to create "geofences." Not a fan of your daughter's boyfriend? Construct a geofence around his home, and you'll know when she shows up there. PC Mag likes Boomerang, FamilyTime and Locategy for their tracking features. 

This is all good advice, but the best thing you can do to reset your child's relationship with their phone and set them up for future success is talk.

Talk about your own struggles with your phone and ask for their advice. Do you compulsively check your phone at stoplights? I do. Talk about the apps they like and why - and how to use them safely. Talk about how, when you were a kid, gossip was bad, but at least it wasn't in writing where it could be stored - and forwarded. Talk about the dangers of sending nude photos. Talk about why you are tracking their location or monitoring their social media use, if you are.

A lot of it really is that simple. Just talk. To each other. In person.