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How can parents help kids use smartphones safely? An expert offers some tips

smartphone.jpg
Andreas Kollmorgen
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Creative Commons

In these modern times, there comes that moment when your preteen comes to you and asks the big question: “Can I have a phone?”

An unscientific survey of friends, family and colleagues reveals that most probably are saying yes to that question.

The real question is how to teach children to make a smartphone work for them instead of against them.

Dr. Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker, has written a new book called "First Phone: a Child's Guide to Digital Responsibility, Safety and Etiquette.” She joined "All Things Considered" to talk about what motivated her to write this book. She also talked about whether the book is intended for parents or their kids — and whether parents should give their preteens smartphones at all.

Interview highlights

Why write the book?

Pearlman: A couple of factors. One is cellphones are everywhere. So even if your child doesn't have a smartphone, their friend probably does, or an iPad, which does just about the same thing. And then I saw during the pandemic – kids who maybe had an hour or two of screen time, now were on the computer for eight hours for school, a couple hours for socializing after school, and then for homework.

So the access just ramped up. And with that comes a lot of exposure to things that kids maybe weren't quite ready for. And I've gotten so many calls from parents just even in the last few years, saying, "Oops, my kid got into something, ordered something on Amazon, saw pictures she shouldn't have – help, what should I do?" And so it kind of made me think that kids really need to know for themselves how to make good decisions because their parents are not always going to be with them to help protect them.

Who exactly is the book intended for? Do you mean for it to be distributed and discussed in schools? Do you mean for parents to buy the book and give it to their kids along with the smartphone? Or do you intend it for the parents themselves?

Pearlman: I definitely wrote it specifically to be read by kids. So it's spoken to them in a language that's perfect for them. There are five kids in the book that speak directly to kids. And I hope that schools adopt this book … for a whole grade, like fifth or sixth grade. Those are the kids that are really getting their first phone. And the same thing for parents, when they get the phone, they get the book. But to me, the book is also a gift to parents. Because, you know, as parents, we're busy, we don't have the time to research all the topics we need to discuss with our kids and create a way to explain it all to them. And in a form that's perfect for their age. So for me, I wanted to write this so the parents could read along and use them as discussion points.

Hopefully, the book is just a beginning point, because digital education is really a lifelong journey for all of us. We all have to keep learning. So I hope that parents start with the book and then get in the right mind frame and then use it as a way to continue talking to their kids about digital education forever.

What facets of the book do you think people will find particularly unique?

Pearlman: Talking about etiquette. I don't think that's something that we do enough. We work so hard with our kids about “please and thank you” and being kind in person. But I think that they really struggle to understand social cues and how to be a digital citizen. So I think that's really important in the book. And I also think something that's unique is self-care. And there's so much research that's coming out about how social media is really affecting our kids’ self-esteem and mental health; anxiety, depression is on the rise.

I think we need to start working with kids about how they can recognize when they are having some emotional issues that are related to their phone and social media. And then once they recognize it, what can they do about it? How do they manage their self-care? How are we to step away from the phone? How are ways to improve our mental health?

I find myself panicking if there's anything I miss with my own smartphone. Still, I have this perception that kids today have more of an unhealthy relationship with their phones than we do. In your experience as a licensed clinical social worker, is that perception misguided? Or is that harsh reality?

Pearlman: I think the harsh reality is we're all addicted to our phones. And that is because they're made to be addicting. You know, there are bells and whistles that are constantly going off that are saying: “Hey, there's something interesting, you should look at me.” And then you add in likes and shares and things that, you know, make us feel good about ourselves, and also all the information that's available to us. I mean, it's just mind-numbing to think like, “Oh, gee, I wonder what temperature I'm supposed to bake this turkey at, look it up.” And then once you're on there, you're now on for 30 minutes. So I try and give us all a little bit of a break to realize that it's not us, it's these devices.

But once you know that it's a little bit out of our control, then we can start to put things on our phone to help us separate, to take time off, or put rules in place. So we don't sleep with our phones, or maybe during meals, we put it away. And we focus on the people in front of us.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. In his 20th year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.
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