Screen Time

Brilliant Idea Alert! An “Ethics Manual” for Your Teen’s Electronics

Technology is empowering, mind-expanding, and awfully fun. It’s also hugely distracting from daily responsibilities and relationships – particularly for kids with ADHD. Here, learn how to teach your tween or teen how to use their devices responsibly — and enforce consequences when they don’t.

A teen girl with ADHD uses a smartphone

Phones. Computers. Tablets. Game Consoles. TVs. For parents, screens are the enemy we love to hate – they take over our kids’ minds (and steal their attention), but they’re also awfully entertaining. And the reality is they’re becoming more ubiquitous by the day.

To succeed in the world, our kids master these technologies.

In other words, we can’t ban them completely. But regulating their use often leads to an epic argument. I have a constant flow of clients through my office who are at a complete loss for what to do.

The key to using screen time productively, for many families, is the establishment of a parent-child agreement and a system designed to maximize the value of electronic tools and to minimize the downside.

Every Device Needs an Ethics Manual

Each time a new electronic device enters your home, sit down with your child and create clear guidelines for its use by outlining the five Ws (and an H):

  1. Who may use it?
  2. What may it be used to do?
  3. When may it be used?
  4. Where may it be used?
  5. Why is this rule being set?
  6. How will this rule be enforced?

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Many parents say, “I’m going to trust you with this until you show me that you can’t be trusted.” Don’t do this. Don’t wait for a problem to emerge before you set boundaries with your child’s new device. It’s a recipe for disaster. Kids just aren’t that trustworthy. It’s not how they’re wired.

Set up a plan in the beginning, then follow that plan. Understand from the start that there are going to be shortcomings and failings. That is part of being a kid; don’t take it personally.

1. Who may use the device?

Explain that the phone (or video game console) belongs to you as a parent, and that you are kindly sharing it with your child. Your child may only use it within certain parameters, not because you are possessive and controlling, but because you are the parent who maintains ownership.

Say this up front, the first time you give your child a device. Otherwise, this rule will never be established. Then, say it repeatedly. Phones have become very personalized experiences, so children often feel their technology is an extension of themselves if they are not given frequent reminders.

[“How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?”]

2. What may the device be used to do?

Explain what activities are allowed, like posting photos with friends on Instagram. Make clear what information she will and will not be allowed to access and/or send. Establish the consequence that the phone will be taken away if, for example, your child Snapchats inappropriate photos or searches for pornography.

Children are not entitled to have a phone with no restrictions. You don’t need to feel guilty about setting device filters. Use a parental control program like Mobicip to set filters on what your child can access.

3. When may the device be used?

The two times that are most important to restrict phone use are during homework time and at night time. Kids will come up with every excuse on the planet for why they need a phone – to listen to music while falling asleep, to do research for a project – but it is just a ploy to get a device that will then keep them from focusing or sleeping.

Children with ADHD are more susceptible to being so genuinely caught up with a phone that they don’t get around to doing the things they need to do.

Phones and video game consoles need scheduled time outs during appropriate times, and whenever they are being misused.

4. Where may the device be used?

Maybe your child isn’t allowed to use the phone at school, in study areas, or while at the dinner table. If you have a teen learning to drive, it is a good rule to ban using a phone in the car.

Choose places where you want your child to be deferent and thoughtful to other people and relationships, and disallow phone use under those circumstances.

Phones can be engaging in a conversation, if you’re all talking about a new Broadway play and watching a clip together. But if one person is wearing headphones and ignoring everyone else, that is not being deferent to the relationship.

5. Why is this rule being set?

While creating the ethics manual, don’t ever utter the phrase, “Because I’m the parent.” The fact that you are the owner of the phone was made clear in step one. It doesn’t mean you get to say, “Well, I said so.” That makes you sound like a dictator, and it doesn’t help your child learn.

Always explain why the rule is being set. Say, “You can’t use your phone at night because you need to sleep. Sleep is actually important to help your body learn and grow.” Or, “Because at the dinner table we want to engage face to face so we have some time together and then you can go back to your phone.” Through explanation, your child learns priorities and values.

6. How will this rule be enforced?

This ethics manual is a guide that helps kids learn how to properly use technology. It’s also a guide for you as you learn to confront your child’s relationship with his or her screens. After creating the ethics manual, don’t take away a phone or shut down a video game system unless it is being misused according to the rules you set up – if screens are being used outside of an appropriate timeframe or used to send inappropriate content.

Don’t take your child’s phone away, for example, if you don’t like her boyfriend and she is calling him all the time. That’s a great way to have a big fight without conveying any meaningful messages.

When a rule is broken, sit down and have a conversation about how long the device penalty will last. For children with ADHD, shorter periods without electronics are OK because they often experience them as longer and more painful. The punishment should be just long enough that it gives kids pause the next time around to think, “Do I really want to do this?”

How to Enforce the Ethics Manual

There are several ways to control the content your child can access on electronic devices.

Use Parental Controls and Timers

Almost every device has parental control restrictions, or a program to enforce them like Mobicip. Take the time to learn how to use them, and set them to block content as you see fit.

Set the routers in your home and the cell phone carrier on a timer so that internet access is restricted at certain times. Activate the “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature on your child’s phone to automatically turn on when in a moving vehicle.

Activate Spyware

There are spy apps that will give you total access to your child’s phone without him knowing it. They are often unethical breaches of children’s privacy, and should only be used sparingly when there is a flagrant abuse of the smartphone – only the most serious offenses should qualify. There are a few occasions when spying becomes a necessary part of protecting your child.

What is even more effective is to say, “If you continue down the path you are on, I will turn your phone into a personal spy station. Do you want to go there?” Just the threat will often stop kids in their tracks because they can imagine the amount of privacy invasion.

If you decide to use spyware, you need to decide beforehand, “What am I going to do if…”

  • I find out my child is texting nude photos
  • I don’t like the way she talks to her boyfriend
  • There is a search history for pornography

Often parents find out things they aren’t prepared for, and it can cause serious problems within the family because the child feels so violated, or a parent is scared by something he reads and acts rashly.

Put Devices in an Impound

Purchase a kitchen safe with a timed lock, and modify it to hold electronic devices by drilling a hole in the side where a charger cord can slip through. Watch a demonstration on how to customize the safe here.

During a period when electronics are not allowed, place the video game console or phone inside. There is a dial that can be set to countdown from one minute to five days. Set the amount of time the safe will remain locked, and close.  Short of a sledgehammer, there is no way to access the device before that period of time has elapsed.

This has the physical effect of blocking the phone from use, and the symbolic effect of a ritual, “Time for the phone to go in its box for a timeout.”

The safe can remain locked for 90 minutes while homework is done, or be set to open at 5am after everyone has gotten a good night’s sleep. With the charger modification, phones will be charged and ready to take out in the morning.

Or, it can be used as a timed punishment when the phone is used outside of the ethics handbook. Sit together and ask, “How far should I turn the dial for this offense?” Then have a discussion about it, and decide what fits the crime.

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