Smartphone Tips for Cautious Parents with Dr. Deuter
In the San Antonio psychiatric world, Dr. Melissa Deuter is somewhat of a sensation, and we got a chance to talk to her about one of the biggest issues facing teens and parents today: smartphone usage.
With all the benefits that smartphones offer, raising your teen without a cell phone isn’t quite the option it was even 5 years ago, but just because modern society has guilted us into buying our children handheld computers, doesn’t mean we have to give them free range.
“Being digital natives, they have a comfort and skill level that’s phenomenal,” Dr Deuter mused. “And they’re learning while using these technologies.” Later, she added, “But it shouldn’t mean they have access to that all the time… it doesn’t mean they should be using it in an unsupervised way.”
So, this piece is for all the parents out there that recognize the inevitable reign of the smartphone empire, but still worry about exposing their children to the likes of, well… this. Stress no more. Dr Deuter is on your side and she’s here to address all of your gnawing concerns, starting with the million dollar question that nobody can quite answer.
What’s the Best Age for A Smartphone?
“Depends on the child, the environment, and what they’ll be using this for,” Dr Deuter delivered it straight, but she didn’t drop the subject, nor did she evade the question.
More important than identifying an arbitrary “age of reason”, Deuter stressed the importance of setting limitations. “You can get a flip phone with only texting and calling,” she posed to a hypothetical teenager. “No need to search the internet unsupervised.” She went on to suggest other reasonable limitations that parents can set for young teens, including:
- No phones in the bedroom
- No phones overnight
- Phones stay in common areas
- No downloading apps without approval
She also suggested that parents identify when a child is ready based less on their age and more on their levels of responsibility and maturity.
“You can have a smartphone when you can pay for it,” she proposed an alternate arrangement, placing this age, for most kids, around 15 or 16. “By about 15 or 16, what kids have seen, heard, dealt with, and their experience is enough to handle the responsibility that comes with a smartphone”
She conceded that there are often external or social factors that necessitate a smartphone for certain kids before others. “The first kids who have phones are the ones who are away from parents,” she noted. “If they are in gymnastics or participate in sports, that child will have a phone to contact parents.” In those case, she especially urges parents to think hard about how many features that child needs? Internet access? Apps? Cameras?
The decision to buy your child a phone is far less black and white than it may seem, but that doesn’t mean it’s a decision to be taken lightly. There are a number of potential hazards to consider.
Understanding the Risks of Connectivity
“Parents don’t understand the technology that the kids use,” Dr. Deuter explained. This is a fundamental problem, when we’re relying on our children’s expertise to explain why what they’re doing is “totally safe… really”.
Dr. Deuter advises parents to familiarize themselves with apps like SnapChat, which allow kids to send each other messages that disappear. They do this under the guise of impermanence, that they can send whatever they want with only momentary consequence.
But, a more nuanced understanding of the internet and digital media tells us that, as Dr. Deuter explained “Everything that’s sent through tech is traceable and findable somewhere.” SnapChat is an exceptionally easy system to subvert, as someone can easily take a screenshot and the image is saved on their phone for however they want to use it.
SnapChat is just one of many apps and social networks that teens use, believing it to be nothing more than fun and games. Unfortunately, those games happen online, somebody somewhere will always remember the score.
“This is a huge concern,” Dr. Deuter said. “Parents don’t know what it is, so kids don’t know that they need guidance, and then end up in situations that are destructive because they didn’t understand the risks.”
User-Generated Content is a primary concern for older kids and teens, but for younger kids, it’s not so much what they put out there, but what’s already out there, waiting for them to find.
Early Exposure to Adult Content
“Parents don’t realize that you are giving kids a computer they can hold in their hands,” Dr. Deuter told us. “They can search anything: porn, violence, things you don’t want your kids to see.”
Some parents might argue, So what? What’s the point of sheltering kids from the realities that they’ll inevitably have to learn?
Dr. Deuter dismantled that argument with an example of young boys that finds access to porn at an early age. “They see porn, and then start sexualizing girls at school. That’s inappropriate, but according to knowledge they’ve acquired, it appears normal.”
Young boys are accessing pornographic and ultra-violent materials before they’ve developed the maturity and cognitive competence to recognize it for what it is: an altered reality designed to indulge adult pleasures. “Their sexual understanding has been altered,” Deuter explained. “And they’re’ too young to understand.”
It is not uncommon or unnatural for young boys (and girls) to attempt to find this kind of content, especially if they’ve accidentally found it before, or had it shared with them by a friend. This is just one of many cases where parental controls are essential.
“Parents should always oversee,” Dr. Deuter insisted. “And be very open about that from the beginning.” She uses her own home as an example, where she lays out the rules very clearly for her kids. She doesn’t bar her kids from accessing various technologies and content, but assures them that she will be watching.
“If you send the message, we will see it,” she tells her kids. “And if you don’t want us to see it, don’t send it.”
This approach to parental monitoring is highly effective, not only because it maintains an atmosphere of trust and respect, but because it leads teens to develop an intrinsic sense of discipline. They learn to avoid certain content and behaviors, not because it’s unavailable, and not even necessarily out of fear of punishment, but because they personally feel uncomfortable with the knowledge that whatever they’re engaging in, Mom’s watching it happen. No teenager wants that mental image.
You can also use this as a platform for resolving the initial problem of not understanding the technology. “If you’re’ going to use this new app, I need to know what it is, and understand it.” Additionally, it’s entirely reasonable to request a demonstration. Deuter compares it to driving a car. You wouldn’t just hand your teen the keys to the Jetta and say “No Street Races”. You’re going to want to be in the passenger seat the first couple of times they get behind the wheel, and as terrifying as that experience may be, you and your teen will both feel safer and more confident for it.
“Every reputable professional who works with adolescents agrees,” Dr. Deuter said. “That you have to monitor your kids when they are doing anything that’s new or potentially dangerous.”
These days, there’s nothing quite as new, and quite as potentially dangerous as a 4G Smartphone. And like all new and dangerous things, our kids are going to want them.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday and for the rest of your life, your child is going to be begging you for a new phone. Odds are, they’ll come prepared, but the most common talking point is one that Dr. Deuter implores parents to resist.
Is that true? Maybe, but probably not. Either way…
Your Child Isn’t “Everybody Else”
“The argument that everyone else is doing it isn’t a reason for any parent to make a bad decision they’re not comfortable with,” Dr. Deuter explained, circling back to her first main point. “Families have to take into account their own value sets.”
Once again, each child is different. It’s not a matter of holding your kids back or slowing their integration into social circles. It’s a matter of preparing your child for their own personal success.
“It’s important for kids to be in situations where they’ll succeed,” Dr. Deuter said. “Instead of setting them up for problems by allowing them access to something that they can’t understand.”
It’s up to us, as parents, to recognize our children’s strengths and weaknesses, to know what changes they’ll be able to handle, and have the confidence to stand by those convictions.
It became apparent that Deuter’s chief concern was less about the integrating of Smartphones and more about a related trend: parents losing confidence in their own intuition. Kids who’ve grown up in the age of the iPhone have natural facilities with new devices, and acquired various technological literacies, they way we acquired pop culture and punk rock lyrics. It’s easy to feel like we’ve lost the upper hand in this discourse, but the reality is, it’s just a new medium where the same lessons must be learned.
“As kids get older, parents have to make uncomfortable decisions,” Dr. Deuter forewarned. “Not everyone makes the same decisions. You have to make decisions that may make your kid uncool. Parents have to do what they believe is right, and not respond to pressure.”
Because at the end of the day, nobody, not even Dr. Melissa Deuter, knows what’s right for your child better than you.