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6 Weeks to a Smartphone-Friendly Family: Week 1

Is your child ready for their first smartphone? You'll know once you bone up on teen brain research and check your timing

Week 1: Is my child ready?

A friend of mine was frazzled because her 10-year-old daughter is begging for a smartphone. “All her friends have them or are getting one. Am I the only mom out there who wants to say 'no'? I’ve read everything on the Internet and I know the kind of trouble I could be in for.”

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Tara Cousineau, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, mom of two teens and CEO of Bodimojo, a website developing research-based technology tools to motivate young people and teens in the area of stress management and self-care. She also co-wrote with me Your Guide to a Smartphone Friendly Family, a handbook designed to help parents navigate the tumultuous waters of smartphones and teens.

“Of all the feedback and questions I’ve heard at speaking engagements or talking directly with moms and dads over the years, this seem to be the number one thing keeping parents up at night,” Cousineau says. 

Smartphones aren’t inherently bad or scary. With some easy practices, you can make the transition go a lot smoother and with a lot less drama.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to share some guideposts Tara and I have developed, by offering information and tips about smartphone use with your teen or tween. At the end of each article, there will also be a link to a free copy of our guide, which will go into more detail and specifics.

“But everyone else has one”

Running out and getting your teen or tween a smartphone because “everyone else has one” is just not a good reason to do it. In addition, there is more to consider than just the developmental age of your child. You need to think about their cognitive maturity as well.

Have you ever tried to pull your son or daughter away from a computer screen? Technology is highly stimulating to the brain. That’s why gadgets and “cool games” catch their attention more than the quieter aspects of life. And when it comes to the development of the body and brain, we know so much more now than we did even ten years ago.

Today, functional brain MRI’s (brain image scans) help scientists discover and document what is going on in the adolescent brain. And having this information can assist us with decisions about technology when it comes to our teens.

What research tells us

On a simplistic level, research says that for teenagers and adolescents, the brain is a good deal more changeable or plastic than was once thought. Dr. Jay Giedd and his colleagues from McGill University have done extensive research on the adolescent brain. What the researchers have found has shed light on how the brain grows and when it grows.

An important part of brain development is happening just before puberty and well into adolescence. That makes adolescence a time of heightened risk and opportunity.

And that means teens need extra support during this stage, just in a different way and more often than you might think.

That is especially true when it comes to technology.  While the teen brain is exploding with neural connections, their hormones are compelling them to engage in certain antics like showing off, taking selfies and posting pictures and comments on social media without giving thought to the consequences.

They can’t help it. It’s in their biological blueprint. And these coming-of-age behaviors are compounded by the teen brain’s frequent happiness surges, also known as a dopamine rush in the reward center of the brain — a real physiological high they get from things like being with their BFF’s, texting with the opposite sex or connecting with hundreds of online “friends” instantly.

So what does all this research mean in terms of a smartphone? It’s more important than ever to be involved and steer your teen through this new phase of life.Your job is to be a guide

For you both to have a positive smartphone experience, you need to be instigating a dialogue from the get-go. You’ve probably been guiding them since they were toddlers around computer screens, so think of this next phase as an extension of that. If you’ve already begun to talk and be involved with your child around technology, their first phone is a way to continue that conversation.

In other words, if you can take a mindful, overall approach to smartphone use as well as technology in general, it won’t feel nearly as daunting.

Is the time right?

There is really no magic age when it comes to giving your teen a smartphone. But if you’re considering it, it may be a good idea to take a step back and consider the big picture.

Though your child never “needs” a smartphone, would it be helpful in emergency situations? Will it make your life easier with a way to keep in touch if there’s a change in after-school activities?

What is your family life and resources like?  What is your teen’s emotional and social world? Have they shown responsible behavior? Do they take care of their things or lose and break them?

Do you have good communication with your teen? Is your child mature enough to understand the potential risks and pitfalls of a smartphone? 

Besides the obvious, like sexting and cyberbullying, probably the greatest risk to your teen is being distracted from real-life experiences and face-to-face interactions. If you’re not convinced your child would be able to keep life in balance with a smartphone, maybe the time isn’t right.

If you’re not sure but decide to get them one anyway, you’ll need to be certain to have protocols in place to keep them from having a screen in front of them 24 hours a day. (We’ll discuss these in the next few weeks.)

For tween’s and kids younger than 12 or 13, you may want to consider a standard cell phone (a "dumb phone") and take it gradually from there. This is an especially good idea if you’re not sure they are emotionally ready for the responsibilities of a smartphone. 

What’s next?

Once you decide to hand a smartphone over to your teen, it’s a good idea to have a plan. Kind of like needing a roadmap for a car, having a map to help guide them through the ups and downs of their first smartphone makes sense.

Next time, I’ll talk about the importance of getting yourself educated about smartphone apps and settings and how to set up ground rules to help you both navigate the waters ahead.

For more details on deciding whether your teen is ready for this new responsibility, as well as a detailed roadmap for the journey, download our free guide.

Read the rest of the series: Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5 and Week 6.

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