Technology | Focus on the Family Australia
Do your kids have healthy phone habits?
By Jonathan McKee
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Our kids' mental health has nearly been narrowed down to two words: Likes and Followers. Learn how to approach habits for your kids and phones.

Amy scrolls through her Instagram feed. For most kids battling healthy phone habits, this is a task so habitual that Amy’s thumbs almost do it instinctively.

Megan’s dog wearing a cute sweater. 397 likes.

Amari and her boyfriend laughing while drinking a milkshake. 492 likes.

Elena wearing a new crop top. 646 likes.

Amy clicks to her latest post, an artsy photo perspective of her new Vans . . . at least she thought so any-way. If only everyone else did.

Only 34 likes.

Her neck and shoulders tighten, and her heart starts beating faster. She can’t put words to the feeling if you asked her, but most counsellors would simply call it anxiety. For some of her friends, it has become something more severe, and sadly far too common. It’s the overwhelming feeling of not being good enough, amplified by the pressurised environment social media create.

Kids’ Mental Health and Healthy Phone Habits

The mental health of young people today has almost been narrowed down to two words: Likes and Followers. And most parents have no idea what to do about it.

It’s as simple as this: Kids want screens. And when they get screens, they want social media because that’s where you connect with people. And once you get on social media, the comparison game begins.

Why don’t I have as many likes as Jake?

Why does Emma have so many more followers?

Teenagers have always struggled with feelings of insecurity, but never before have those results been posted for the entire world to see.

182 Likes.

165 Followers.

There’s always someone with more.

Creating Healthy Phone Habits for our Kids

Researchers are coming to a consensus: Today’s young people are experiencing an unprecedented increase of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts . . . pre-COVID, mind you. And the spike began when social media found its way into every-one’s back pocket.

One in 4 young people are affected by mental health problems and disorders and a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed, suicide rates among Australians aged 10 to 24 increased by 15% between 2010 and 2019. For some perspective, the iPhone came out in Australia in 2008. The biggest increases in suicide rates occurred among the 15 - 17 year olds.

In 2020, researchers compared their data and came to a consensus: The hours young people spend on social media strongly affects their mental health, especially among girls. They even got specific: Mental health and happiness are the strongest when teenagers spend just one to two hours a day on social media. The more time spent past two hours, mental well-being decreases rapidly.

So what can Mum and Dad do to help their kids, especially their daughters, manage healthy phone habits? Here are a few tips most researchers agree on for healthy phone habits:

Connection before Correction
The temptation after reading this kind of research is to overreact and respond with rules. But what your kids really need is for you to interact with them and work on responding relationally. The old adage is true: Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.

We need to convert our overreaction into interaction. So talk with your kids about the research in this article. Take them through a book like my Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, engaging them in a dialogue with the discussion questions. Owning a phone is much like driving a car—it’s a privilege. We spend hours upon hours talking with our kids about driving before they get behind the wheel. Why is the smartphone any different?

Delay Social Media until High School
I know. This is extremely difficult (and I can hear your daughter saying it now, “All my friends are on Instagram, Mum!”) but just like driving, owning a smart-phone is a privilege that comes with age.

At a bare minimum, don’t give your kids a smart-phone until they’re 13 years old.

Why 13? Because kids can’t be on social media until they’re 13 according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Anyone who tries to sign up for social media has to enter his or her date of birth and will be denied if under age 13. COPPA doesn’t allow websites or social media apps to collect personal information from anyone under 13 without parental consent.

The minimum is 13. But, as a guy who researches this stuff all the time, I think that age should be 14 for most kids. Groups of parents can unite and commit to waiting until all their kids graduate from primary school to get them smartphones. It’s much easier if their close-knit group of friends are in the same boat.

Keep Devices Out of the Bedroom
I’ve heard hundreds of horror stories from parents at my parent workshops of their kids getting into trouble with their phones. And in all those stories of kids streaming inappropriate content or sneaking off with someone they met on social media (often someone who turns out different than who they thought), almost all of those stories have a common phrase: all through the night.

They were messaging each other all night. He played his games all night. She would wake up and check her likes all night. He downloaded inappropriate pictures in his bedroom late at night.

Maybe that’s because recent studies reveal 79% of teenagers actually take their devices with them to the bedroom each night, 68% of teens keep it within reach, and 29% actually sleep with their device in bed.

Would you like to avoid a lot of grief?

Collect your kids’ phones every night about an hour before bedtime. (I bet you can think of about 10 things they can do instead.)

I can hear it now. “But Mum, I need it for my alarm clock.” Keep their phone. Buy them an alarm clock.

© 2021 Jonathan McKee. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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