3 Tips to Help Your Teen Use Their Phone Responsibly

If you’re the parent of a tween or teen with a smartphone, you may feel overwhelmed about how to help them navigate technology usage and life online. As the award-winning author of several books for tweens, Jessica Speer joined us to discuss her latest book, The Phone Book; Stay Safe, Be Smart, and Make the World Better with the Powerful Device in Your Hand. Here are some highlights from our conversation to help your teens develop a healthy relationship with technology and use it responsibly!

Is it inevitable that technology will “ruin” our kids?

When Dr. Amy asked Jessica what surprised her the most when doing the research for this book, Jessica pointed out that what happens with kids that are first getting their phones is so different from the insights they have when they’re in their later teen years looking back. 

“As the school year was wrapping up, I was hanging out with some juniors and seniors in their classroom and we were just chatting about technology and phones,” says Jessica. “They were feeling so nostalgic for the days pre-phone. These teens were actually so grateful that phones didn’t come into their lives until later. They still got to play Kick the Can and fun neighborhood games outside. So they were feeling bad for kids today that are getting phones so early that they don’t get to experience that.”

“What was inspiring to me is that as kids get older, they definitely get more self-aware and formed as they go. So I know some people are so worried, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is going to ruin kids today.’ But what I’ve seen is, a few years down the road, they are so much wiser and they’re going to be great leaders and teachers moving forward.”

The short version? Technology has a lot of advantages that, if used smartly and safely, can actually help tweens and teens stay social, learn new hobbies and skills, and help them contribute in a positive way to the world. 

So here are some tips to help your teens navigate technology the smart way:

#1: Teach your kids about digital footprints.

Also known as a “digital shadow,” a digital footprint refers to someone’s traceable digital activities, including emails, websites they visit, information they submit online, apps they download, photos and videos they post, and more. 

“For younger brains, this is a harder concept to grasp onto, that what you’re putting out there now actually might affect you in college,” explains Jessica. “And it does. It is a common thing for college admissions now to search students. And for the most part, it’s really positive. They can find some really cool things that prospective students are doing online. But there have been situations where acceptance has been revoked because of things they found online. So those conversations need to start early and often with kids and even beyond college or future employment.”

Beyond just future regret over the things you post, it’s important for teens to understand that once something is online, it’s out of their control. Sure, they can delete a post, but what if someone had already screenshotted it or saved it? This is a tough chain reaction for some teens to grasp, so having the conversation often is important.

Tip #2: Talk to your kids about digital stress and the value of sleep.

According to Jessica, “digital stress” is very real for teens. “They’re expected to kind of respond fairly quickly to text and somehow navigate these really complex group chats,” she explains. “We didn’t have that. When we were away from our friends, we were away from our friends and got that downtime and time to regenerate. That’s not really a thing anymore and it does add a little layer of social stress to kids these days. A lot of drama plays out online within these chats and DMs and people getting kicked out of groups.”

Sleep, too, plays a big role in staying physically and mentally healthy, but as co-host Teri Miller pointed out, the responsibility of setting parameters on tech usage often falls back on the parents. But that role can vary greatly depending on the maturity of the tween or teen, the parenting style, and whether other siblings live at home. As Jessica points out, at 11 and 12, most tweens don’t have the self-control to ignore their phones. 

“If their phone is buzzing like crazy, which most of them are, kids are not getting a lot of sleep. I’m such an advocate for sleep. For me, this is where we, as parents, need to step in and help them because smartphones are designed to keep us on them. It’s called ‘persuasive design.’ That’s how they’re made.”

It’s important to share with your kids the importance of sleep and self-care.

Learning when to unplug and recharge themselves is a critical life skill that will save them so much energy and stress down the road! If your teen isn’t one to listen to your advice, you can tie it in with something they do care about (like academics or sports). When we help them see how their sleep quality impacts the things they really are passionate about, they will be more likely to buy in to protecting this time of rest.

Tip #3: Listen to the “why” behind your kids’ motives on technology. 

Jessica is quick to remind parents that because we didn’t grow up with this technology, it’s sometimes difficult to fully understand the complicated social dynamics involved with technology usage. She says it’s vital to come at all of this with a lot of curiosity and that we’ll have a lot better luck connecting with our kids if we try to listen to them rather than simply setting strict parameters or giving them unrealistic advice. 

Jessica emphasizes that empathy, too, can go a long way in helping our kids feel heard and supported. Think about your own experience as a tween or teen and look for ways to find common ground and possibly, compromise.

Jessica points out that in many ways, our tweens and teens are doing exactly what we did. “You know, we listened to music on boom boxes. They’re listening on Spotify. We used to play Atari video games. They’re all connected online. We used to actually get together and have parties. They’re all hanging out on Snapchat. I think what’s so different is because it’s 24 hours, it’s nonstop. But you have to come from a place of curiosity and connection and see if you can find some middle ground there.”

Bonus: What are some of the new acronyms and words parents might not know?

If you struggle to understand your teens or wonder if you’re misinterpreting something? Here are some of the common new-ish phrases you may not be aware of:

  • FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out): Anxious feelings or fear that you’re missing out on an exciting or rewarding experience
  • Phubbing (Phone + Snubbing): Snubbing someone you’re talking with in person to pay attention to your phone instead
  • Sadfishing: Sharing emotional problems on social media or the Internet to try to gain attention (not always bad)
  • Streaks: A series of days in a row you and a friend have sent Snaps to each other
  • Nomophobia: A fear of being detached from mobile phone connectivity (or your phone)

To hear Jessica Speer’s full episode on The Brainy Moms podcast, click here