When should a kid get their first smartphone? And other parenting questions of the social media age

(USA TODAY) -- For parents, technology is great. It can keep us organized, connected and up-to-date on everything in our kids' worlds. It can also present its own problems, especially once our children takes their first digital steps.

Scott Steinberg, author of the book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide, said while sending children out into the tech wilderness seems scary, it's important to serve both as a mentor and digital bodyguard.

"You really need to help give kids the training and insights they need to make better decisions and to let them know they have safe places to turn when they need assistance, insight or help," he said.

Meanwhile, kids are getting their first smartphone at younger ages. A 2016 study from research firm Influence Central found the average age for getting a first smartphone is 10.3 years old, down from 12 in 2012.

"We’ve got entire generations of kids who are growing up now with smartphones, online apps, and technology that is second nature to them. But we’ve done preciously little to prepare them for life in an always online and connected world," Steinberg said. 

USA TODAY talked with Steinberg about his book, and some practical tips parents should consider when introducing kids to technology. (This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.)

Q: If you had one piece of advice for parents about kids and technology, what would it be?

A: Remember that homework is for parents. It’s not just for kids. You absolutely have to be as involved in your child’s digital and online life as you would be in real world activities and interactions. In many ways, the roles of teachers and students are reversed, because they’re the ones who have grown up with technology in hand ... and often times we’re the ones scrambling to play catch up. But the good news is it’s not high-tech parenting that’s going to win the day here. It’s traditional low-tech parenting, and just making a point to ask the right questions, to be having the conversations in households and schools, and making a point to stay on top of the latest new high-tech developments. A little effort can go a long way.

Q: How can parents manage their kids' screen time?

A: A good rule of thumb for many families is to start kids on the earlier side with about 30 to 60 minutes per day, and then increase it as they get a little bit older into the tweens and teens, noting there’s different types. Screen time spent doing homework or playing educational games online, or perhaps using a social network to collaborate on projects with others around the world, or spend time coding and pursuing hobbies that potentially have real world or career benefits is a little bit different than dorking around, playing on the internet with throwaway free-to-play games that don’t teach or encourage interest in real world activities. There’s a time and place for fun and games. When it comes to screen time, probably somewhere in that 30 to 60 minutes or 60 to 120 minutes for older kids is where you’re going to find a sweet spot. 

By the way, don’t beat yourself up too bad. I’m a single parent, and there seems to be guilt amongst many when you have to let the kid play on the iPad or iPhone for a little bit because work has to get done, there’s chores — things around the house. Every once in a while, you have to be kind to yourself.

Q: When is it OK to give their kids their first smartphone?

A: This is another one where every parent is going to have to figure out for their own household, based on how kids develop and mature or how responsible they are.  But realistically, if you need a good rule of thumb, a fine baseline is 13 years of age.

The other piece of this too is you can also argue — it’s when they really need it. When they're going to be so far outside your oversight or outside of ready accessibility, when they start going off doing activities, camps, or they need to be able to get in touch with you but can’t, that’s a possibility for when you can introduce it.

Q: How can parents prepare kids as they engage in social media, like Facebook or Instagram?

A: Speak to kids in a positive, upbeat manner, and educate them as to how social networks work, the upsides, and possible concerns that may arise. Let them know where to turn for help if it’s needed – and make sure they know they can trust you to hear them out, offer positive insights, and not freak out when challenges present themselves.

Set household rules and guidelines defining when it’s OK to use social media, how it’s appropriate to do so, and times when social networks and high-tech devices should be shut off.

Model positive behavior – show teens how to use social networks safely, responsibly, and respectfully by leading by example. And although it is recommended that you connect with your kids on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks they may utilize, you as a parent need to also know your boundaries, just as you do in real life.

Q: With social networks, cyberbullying has become a more critical issue. How should parents handle it, whether their child is bullied or the bully?

A: By making it a priority and taking it seriously – and making a point to bring discussions out into the open and let kids know that you’ve got their back 100%, and are willing to address any challenges in a positive and constructive manner. (Read: Not freak out on them.) It’s also vital to teach children about empathy, and consider the way in which their words and actions can affect others – as well as to teach them the importance of the Golden Rule. And should you suspect your child is a victim or party to cyberbullying, it’s most important to note that many qualified professionals, organizations, and educators stand ready to help – more and more, these topics are coming out into the open, and more and more is being done to provide families with the support and feedback they need to successfully handle the challenges that come with such online threats.

Avoid saying anything negative about specific people, places, or – in the case of teens – co-workers or bosses. It’s likely that anything said on a social network will find its way back to them and presents the potential for negative consequences such as the loss of a job, troubles getting into college, or unproductive personal interactions. Don’t spread rumors, innuendo, name-calling and negative gossip either. In other words, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it – negativity never reflects well on the individual spreading it. Likewise, if you’re not willing to say something directly to others’ face in real life, then don’t do so publicly for the world to see. Don’t share any photos or other information that is embarrassing, unflattering or controversial to anyone. Teach kids that if a subject raises even the slightest question in your mind, it’s best to just erase it before hitting the "post," "tweet," or "share" button.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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