In my household, we were not on the same page about what age our son should be when he received his first cell phone. My husband (and son) figured turning double digits was the magical time, whereas I’d been thinking more like 13. Or 15. The guys won out, but it has been quite a ride trying to navigate usage time, new research and the best parental control apps over this last year.
Unless you’ve somehow managed to create a screen-free household, you’re likely facing similar battles with your own digital natives – this generation of kids who learned to scroll and swipe before they could eat solid foods. With a mission to help parents help their children develop healthier tech habits, Julia Storm, a digital media parenting educator, has founded a company called ReConnect.
How did you become interested in educating parents about digital media?
My background was in film, television and film media production. I worked on the production side and worked a lot in children’s content in different capacities, and ended up at a wonderful company called The Mother Company… I worked with experts in the field of child development. While I was there, one of the relationships I had was with Common Sense Media. I also worked as a paraprofessional counselor at Southern California Counseling Center. It’s sort of like it was a confluence [of my work] and then me watching my own children and this sort of allure of screens they had when they were very, very young.
When did you start ReConnect and how does it work?
I officially founded it about a year and a half ago, and the options for parent education include one-on-one consultations, parent group workshops, parent-child circles, and our online classes are in development. The one-on-one consultations, which can be in person or via Skype, are for parents who just want some guidance. Maybe they are in a tricky situation with one of their kids, or want to know how to develop structure around screen time. I also spend some time helping parents curb their own screen time a little bit.
The parent-group workshops are really useful for parents to get their parent community on board. If you’re sort of on the same page with the parents in your community, this can be a big help.
Our parent-child circles [are] usually for kids over 11 years old. This is where you get a group of your kids and their friends and one or both parents together. We do an in-home circle with your group where we get to explore the tensions and questions coming up from both parents and kids, including what parents are doing that annoy the kids. And kids cannot wait to turn on the parents. Parents have a lot to learn about this new world from our kids.
How old should kids be when they receive their first cell phone?
There are several questions you as a parent should ask yourself first. Number one, getting a phone is a big deal. Number two, it’s a really expensive object. That’s just one very practical thing to consider. Other questions to consider: How does your child take care of their stuff? How socially and emotionally mature is your child? How are they doing in school? How do they do with their friendships? How do they handle emotions like jealousy? You want to make sure that their ducks are in a row, because this tool is going to distract them from anything else.
What can parents do to lessen the negative effects?
You don’t have to get them a full-blown, all-access phone. You can prepare the phone before giving it to them. Nowadays, the operating systems come with some parental monitoring options. It’s very important for the parent to set it up as a good intro phone. Think of it as training wheels.
You don’t have to spy on your child, but you can say, “Let’s shut everything down from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.” Also, don’t bring the devices to the dinner table.
Be an ally and talk to your kid relatively frequently about what’s going on in the online world. Have them teach you, show you around, play video games with them. You should follow your kids on social media. Don’t comment, just silently follow them. I personally don’t endorse younger kids using social media at all.
What are your personal challenges as a mom?
My kids are 6 and 9. My older kid has a harder time letting go than the younger one. Because of the tantrums, I thought, “You’re not ready,” but the screen became like a forbidden fruit, so then I thought, “Hmm, maybe making it so forbidden is not the way to go.” So, I started allowing it 30 minutes here and there after piano lessons. Kids communicate on these devices, so to take it away completely is not fair.
Any final words of advice?
One of the most important things is to keep all screens out of the bedroom. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is. Kids need their sleep time. Having the phone in the room disrupts sleep. Some research suggests there’s radiation on the side of phones and that the blue light imbalances melatonin production because the brain is processing it as daylight. We want to make bedrooms what I call sanctuaries.
For more information, visit reconnect-families.com.